Investigations

Uncompetitive race for Dane County Senate seat draws near record in campaign funds

Democrat Dianne Hesselbein will be the first woman to represent the 27th State Senate district, which includes Middleton, Waunakee, Mount Horeb and New Glarus.

State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton), defeated Republican Robert Relph of Cross Plains in the race for the 27th State Senate seat in western Dane County.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

The race for the 27th State Senate District in western Dane County saw more than $217,000 in campaign funds raised, the second-highest total in history.

State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, a Democrat from Middleton, brought in more than $124,000 compared to the $93,000 by her Republican challenger, Robert Relph of Cross Plains, according to Follow the Money, an organization which tracks campaign finance data.

And for the first time in history, the district will have a woman representing it in the state Senate.

Hesselbein easily defeated Relph, earning about 68% of the more than 96,000 votes cast in the left-leaning, some might say left-lunging, district.

“It’s important that people know that I’m available and accessible and I work for everyone, no matter who they voted for,” she said in a phone interview. “That’s just the way I’ve always been.”

Of course, Hesselbein is not the first woman to represent the area in the state legislature, which the retiring state Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb) did for years in the Assembly. The state Senate seat Hesselbein will hold opened up after state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who held the seat for more than 20 years, announced his retirement earlier this year.

“Big shoes to fill,” Hesselbein said.

The state senator-elect enters a chamber in which her party has a weak minority of seats. Though any bill needs the signature of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, to become law, giving the minority party some leverage. Hesselbein held her Assembly seat for years in a Republican-controlled legislature while GOP Gov. Scott Walker was the state’s executive. She touted some success there as the vice chair of a bipartisan task force on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia that succeeded in having several bills signed by the governor.

In the near future at least, she must continue to collaborate with the opposition to pass any more legislation.

“I worked with some of these Republican state senators when they were in the Assembly, and I have relationships with them,” Hesselbein said. “My plan is to meet with them and see if there’s anything we can agree on.”

YOUR NEW STATE SENATOR

Hesselbein, 51, is married with three children. She graduated from LaFollette High School in Madison, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UW-Oshkosh and a master’s degree from Edgewood College in Madison. Hesselbein has served in the 99-member state Assembly since 2012. She previously served on the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Board and the Dane County Board.

She didn’t consider the change to the state Senate a move up, she said.

“I would say it’s moving somewhere else,” she said. “I loved being a state representative for years. This just offered another opportunity for me to use the public service that I love and apply that to more people.”

The population of one state Assembly district is about 60,000 people. Wisconsin’s 33 Senate districts are composed of three Assembly districts each.

Hesselbein won a larger share than Democrats did the last time the seat was up, when Erpenbach won about 66%. Wisconsin’s legislative districts were redrawn by Republicans in 2021 to refresh their political advantage, and the 27th Senate District, already “highly Democratic,” got pushed further to the left, said Ryan Weichelt, a UW-Eau Claire geography professor who focuses on political geography.

THE DISTRICT

Wisconsin’s 27th Senate District, which wraps around the west side of Madison, includes Middleton, Waunakee and New Glarus.

Ryan Weichelt, a UW-Eau Claire geography professor who focuses on political geography.

While Senate Democrats were getting crushed across the state in 2022, losing enough seats for Republicans to gain a ⅔ supermajority in the chamber, Hesselbein was sailing past her Republican opponent.

When gerrymandering, the party drawing the lines “packs” as many voters of the opposing party as they can into a few districts. The western part of deep blue Dane County is a “prime example of Democratic packing,” Weichelt said.

“Larger concentrations of population in urban areas make it a bit easier to pack populations, especially Democrats,” he said.

People who currently vote for Democrats actually gerrymander themselves somewhat by crowding into small geographic areas, i.e. cities, experts like Weichelt note. People who vote for Republicans are harder to gerrymander against, and easier to gerrymander for, because they are more spread out across the state.

The election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in April could result in a new majority on the court that might be open to ending political gerrymandering in the state, replaced with nonpartisan political districts, experts say. Meaning it’s possible the state’s political districts could change again in the coming years.

CAMPAIGN FINANCES

Campaign finance law caps donations to candidates for state Senate at $2,000 per election cycle. Republicans doubled the limits to all candidates for state office when they took full control of state government in the last decade.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party gave Hesselbein more than $12,000.

While individuals are capped in what they can give to political candidates in Wisconsin, political parties can both receive and give unlimited amounts of cash. That’s due to court cases that wiped out Wisconsin’s aggregate limit on political contributions. Democrats have proposed bills that would cap the amount political parties can receive and donate, as well as halving the limits to candidates, but Republicans in the majority have ignored the bills.

In her total campaign haul, Hesselbein received the maximum $2,000 donation from many organized labor political action committees, including the unions of firefighters, plumbers, electrical workers, teamsters, and teachers.

She also received the maximum from the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Beer Distributors and the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Karla Jurvetson, a California physician and philanthropist who has given millions to political candidates, mainly Democratic ones, also gave Hesselbein the maximum $2,000.

“I think people and organizations donated to me because I have a proven track record and they know my work ethic and they know what I bring to the table,” Hesselbein said. “I certainly never agree 100% with people or groups who have donated to me all of the time, but they also know that I’m very honest.”

Most of Relph’s campaign haul came from himself. He donated nearly $70,000 to his campaign. Candidates can give unlimited amounts to their campaigns, per state law.

State Senator Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) was one of the few to give Relph the maximum $2,000. Madison developer and occasional Republican political candidate Eric Hovde gave Relph about $1,900.

Attempts to reach Relph were unsuccessful.

During his 24 years in the Wisconsin State Senate, Jon Erpenbach regularly raised about $100,000 for each of his campaigns, according to Follow the Money.

Republican Nancy Mistele, the high-profile Dane County conservative, raised the largest haul of campaign donations in the district’s history in 1998, when she brought in more than $260,000 in a losing effort. In his first run for the district, Erpenbach raised about $104,000 that year. That’s the most expensive race in the history of the district, well ahead of the amount Hesselbein and Relph raised this year.

Top donors to Hesselbein in 2022 election cycle

CONTRIBUTORCITYSTATETOTAL
WISCONSIN DEMOCRATIC PARTYMADISONWI$12,125
WISCONSIN REALTORS ASSOCIATIONMADISONWI$2,000
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS / IBEWWASHINGTONDC$2,000
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS / IBTWASHINGTONDC$2,000
WISCONSIN BEER DISTRIBUTORS ASSOCIATIONMADISONWI$2,000
TAVERN LEAGUE OF WISCONSINMIDDLETONWI$2,000
OPERATING ENGINEERS LOCAL 139PEWAUKEEWI$2,000
WISCONSIN LABORERS DISTRICT COUNCILDEFORESTWI$2,000
WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 6MADISONWI$2,000
JURVETSON, KARLA TINKLENBERGLOS ALTOSCA$2,000
PLUMBERS & GASFITTERS LOCAL 75MILWAUKEEWI$2,000
FIRE FIGHTERS LOCAL 311MADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN PIPE TRADES ASSOCIATIONMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
PLUMBERS & STEAMFITTERS LOCAL 601MILWAUKEEWI$2,000
AFSCME WISCONSIN COUNCIL 32MADISONWI$2,000
SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL WISCONSIN STATE COUNCILMADISONWI$2,000
KINNE, PAULMIDDLETONWI$1,500
WISCONSIN SOCIETY OF ANESTHESIOLOGISTSMILWAUKEEWI$1,100
DRURY, EVEMIDDLETONWI$1,100
KUHN, EMILYMIDDLETONWI$1,100
ALLIANT ENERGYMADISONWI$1,000
EMILYS LISTWASHINGTONDC$1,000
WISCONSIN INSURANCE ALLIANCEMADISONWI$1,000
WISCONSIN HEALTH CARE ASSOCIATIONMADISONWI$1,000
TOPEL, ROBERTMADISONWI$1,000
STRASMA, KENNETHMIDDLETONWI$1,000
PAULSEN, KURTMIDDLETONWI$1,000
FRIENDS OF WISCONSIN BEAR HUNTERSMADISONWI$1,000
KAVULICH, SUSAN HMIDDLETONWI$1,000
STOLL, JOMADISONWI$1,000
MEINHOLZ, SUSAN ANORTH BRANCHMN$1,000
BERNDT, DAVIDTOMAHWI$1,000
LUCCI, SARAKENOSHAWI$1,000

This story was funded by a grant from the Mount Horeb Community Foundation.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

Categories: Investigations

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