Long-serving Republican Sen. Alberta Darling announces retirement
Longtime state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) announced her retirement Wednesday, leaving Senate Republicans one seat short of a supermajority and setting the stage for what could be a competitive special election.
“For the past thirty-two years, it has been my honor and privilege to represent the great people of Wisconsin. I am especially fortunate to have been surrounded by a supporting family and staff,” Darling wrote in a letter addressed to Senate President Chris Kapenga.
Darling, who represents District 8, was first elected to the Senate in 1992, after serving for a little over two years in the state Assembly. During her time in office, Darling led the joint finance committee for six terms and served as the chair of the education committee. According to her office, she worked on more than 200 bills that became law.
“As the longest-serving woman to co-chair the Joint Committee on Finance, I made sure each and every dollar was spent prudently knowing this money comes from the hardworking people of our state,” Darling said in a statement. She also said she was proud to help co-author the first school choice program in the state.
Over the course of her career, Darling shifted from more moderate views on issues including abortion to more conservative stances. She sat on the board of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin for five years while she served in the Legislature, but later criticized Planned Parenthood and pursued anti-abortion legislation. The JFC, while led by Darling in 2011, voted to ban organizations that provide abortions from receiving grants given to city and county health departments, community health centers and clinics for family planning.
Darling’s retirement, which will take effect Dec. 1, takes Senate Republicans from a 22-member supermajority to a 21-member majority, and if Republicans lose the seat, the Senate supermajority will once again be out of grasp.
Gov. Tony Evers will need to schedule a special election to fill the seat in this suburban, traditionally conservative district that covers southern parts of Ozaukee, Washington counties, northeastern parts of Waukesha county and northern Milwaukee suburbs.
Sachin Chheda, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist, said gerrymandering is one reason this district has remained a Republican stronghold.
“As Wisconsin became more partisan, Senator Darling took a hard right turn and has increasingly been out of step with her district and the majority of Wisconsinites but she has been protected by the gerrymandering of the Republican legislative leadership,” Chheda said.
Recent elections saw a softening of conservative support in the suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington — or “WOW” — counties. Tim Michels, the Rrepublican gubernatorial candidate, underperformed in some of these districts compared with former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Michels won Waukesha county with about 59.7% of the vote, a drop from 2018 when Walker won the district with 66.1% of the vote. In Ozaukee county, Walker won in 2018 with 62.6% of the vote, while Michels in November only gathered 55%.
Chhada said waning support could make it possible to flip the seat. He attributed Republican slippage to voters being turned off by extreme ideology.
“Ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and even in that election, you’ve seen a degradation of the Republican brand in the suburbs, especially amongst, you know, middle- income, educated folks who… don’t want to identify with that Republican party,” Chheda said. “That Republican party that is extreme, that Republican party that is overtly racist, that Republican party that is overtly anti democracy, that Republican party that revels in anti-gay and anti-trans and anti-abortion leadership.”
Chheda said with Darling’s announcement coming the day before Thanksgiving, potential candidates will have some time before they need to make a decision about running, so it’s likely the field won’t become clear until after the holiday.
Three Assembly districts make up Senate District 8, including Assembly District 22 represented by Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R – Menomonee Falls), Assembly District 23 represented by Rep. Deb Andraca (D – Whitefish Bay) and Assembly District 24 represented by Rep. Dan Knodl (R – Germantown). Those current representatives are all potential candidates.
Andraca told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she won’t be spending Thanksgiving thinking about it. “I think it’s important to show gratitude for the race I just won before jumping into anything new. I will be spending the holiday focusing on things like cranberries, not campaigns,” she said.
Chheda said it’s too early to tell if a primary will be held, but it’s possible multiple Democratic candidates could be interested in running for the seat, and it could be the case that neither Republican Assembly member in the Senate district will want to pass on the opportunity.
“These seats come open so rarely, that if you are, for example, a Republican state representative, I don’t see any reason why Dan Knodl would defer to Janel Brandtjen and I don’t know why Janel Brandtjen would defer to him,” Chheda said.
Knodl told WisPolitics Wednesday that he is giving serious consideration to a bid for the seat.
Chheda said Brandtjen running as the nominee would endanger the seat for Republicans because of her alignment with the far right and election denialism, which he said is not playing well in suburban districts.
Brandtjen’s status in the Assembly Republican caucus has been strained. She was recently barred from attending caucus meetings due to “continual issues from the past” that led the caucus to lose trust in her.
“I think what Democrats probably want to see is Janel Brandtjen be the nominee,” Chheda said. “I would assume that the Republican leadership wants to see anybody but Janel.”
He said she would still be a strong primary candidate for the seat, and a Democrat running against her could have a chance at winning
The timing of the election could also play a role in driving turnout for the special election. An election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled for April that will determine the ideological lean of the court and influence case decisions for years to come. Chheda said if Evers schedules the special election near the Supreme Court election, that could give voter turnout a boost.
Republican legislative leaders thanked Darling for her years of service. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R – Rochester) said in a statement: “Alberta is fair, passionate, and incredibly smart on complex public policy. She has been a strong that Darling shaped Wisconsin’s finances to what they are today and that he admired her leadconservative voice on the Joint Committee on Finance, and it was truly an honor to serve together as co-chairs on the committee.” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said in a statement that he admired her leadership and she played an instrumental role in shaping Wisconsin’s current finances.
Evers said in a tweet that Darling “earned the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle because she’s a diligent leader who’s always carried herself with poise, class, and grace. I’ve always appreciated her thoughtfulness in our conversations over the years.”