The stakes in the 2023 race for Wisconsin Senate District 8
Republican Dan Knodl and Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin are vying for a suburban Milwaukee seat in the state senate that will determine whether Republicans will be able to wield impeachment powers.
By Zac Schultz | Here & Now
March 23, 2023 • Southeast Region
In 2023, Wisconsin voters will elect a Supreme Court justice that will determine the ideological balance of the court. On that same day, voters in the northern Milwaukee suburbs will elect a state senator that could determine something equally as large — whether Republicans in the senate hold a two-thirds majority.
“Hi, how are you? I’m Jodi Habush Sinykin, I’m running for Wisconsin state senate,” said the Democratic candidate.
“I’m Dan Knodl, state representative, running now for state senator,” said the Republican candidate.
The special election in the 8th Senate District has the potential to be overlooked on April 4.
After all, no matter the outcome, Republicans will still control the Legislature and Democrat Tony Evers will still be governor.
If Dan Knodl wins, he will become the 22nd Republican in the senate, giving them a two-thirds majority. Republicans would still be a couple votes shy of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, though, so there’s no threat of them being able to override a veto from Evers.
“Wisconsin is, in fact, at a tipping point,” said
Jodi Habush Sinykin is trying to convince voters the outcome could impact the entire state.
“I have some literature — if I could give to you and just impress upon you the importance of the April 4 special election,” the Democratic candidate said to a prospective voter. “Thank you very much, I appreciate it.”
That’s because a two-thirds majority in the state senate would give Republicans in the Legislature the powers of impeachment — the ability to remove “Civil Officers of the State” from office for reasons of corrupt conduct.
“I would hope voters do have that in their mind,” said Knodl. “I will put it in their mind because it is important.”
Knodl would be the 22nd vote for Republicans, and he is eager to test out the legal limits of impeachment, even if any attempt would likely be challenged in court.
“I think we have to be honest and say that that is likely,” Knodl said about the likelihood that at least one impeachment would be pursued. “I have requests out right now from people who are more constitutionally scholarly than I am to tell me, give me an opinion on what this authority might provide.”
A 2014 memorandum from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council makes clear the term “Civil Officers” is not defined. So, the first question is whether this category would only apply to appointed cabinet-level officials and state board members, or whether Republicans could try to impeach Evers, or Attorney General Josh Kaul, or a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“That’s the question. And that means we may not know the answer unless we test that and use that authority and see how it shakes out,” Knodl said.
“But I will initially look at it. That really could involve any elected official — particularly elected officials — government officials as well appointed,” he noted. “So I would think it’s — I view it initially as all encompassing.”
“Those type of shenanigans, those political games of impeachment, whether they’re tied up in court or not, it’s not what we need in Wisconsin,” said Habush Sinykin.
A win by Habush Sinykin would take impeachment off the table, but that’s not what she’s campaigning on.
“Oh hi, I just wanted to see if you were supportive or if there are issues you want to talk about?” said Habush Sinykin while canvassing.
“What issues are you running on?” asked a voter.
“I’m very much running on women’s right to choose and healthcare options, safety of our communities,” Habush Sinykin replied.
Like Democrats across the country since the fall of Roe v. Wade, she’s campaigning on abortion.
“What I am continuing to hear — the gravest concern to folks — is women’s right to choose and women’s health care options in general. That’s really been number one,” Habush Sinykin said.
“To me, being pro-life is a positive thing,” said Knodl.
He has been in the Assembly for 14 years and has represented large portions of the 8th Senate District over that time.
Knodl said representation extends beyond those already living there.
“So I believe I need to be the voice of not only those that are adults, but younger people and the unborn. They don’t have a voice,” he said.
Republicans in the Assembly are introducing a bill that would provide rape and incest exceptions for abortion in the first trimester, and clarifies when an abortion can be performed to save the life of a mother.
“I don’t think people give enough credence to a current law which protects the life of the mother, which is a main factor,” said Knodl. “I also support rape and incest exceptions.”
Habush Sinykin said even supporting the Assembly bill puts Knodl out of line with most voters.
“What they don’t appreciate is that Knodl, who is my opponent, is extreme on abortion,” Habush Sinykin said.
The 8th Senate District has been a safe Republican seat for decades. Republican Alberta Darling held the seat for 30 years, but she resigned at the end of 2022, setting up a special election to fill out the last two years of her term.
Over the past six years, the seat has followed the path of suburbs across the country and shifted more Democratic.
“I’d have to admit certainly there’s a shift that has been going and you just look at the election cycles,” said Knodl.
He said some of that shift has been people moving out of Milwaukee to get away from crime.
“Nobody can deny that there’s crime — rising crime problem in the city of Milwaukee — and that extends out into the suburbs. And so we feel that,” Knodl said.
Habush Sinykin is also talking about crime, but said Republicans are to blame for short-changing shared revenue, preventing cities from hiring enough police officers.
“This legislature, really, under my opponent’s watch — they are part of this problem,” she said. “They are not providing our law enforcement with what they need to keep us safe.”
Knodl has a different solution to battling crime in Milwaukee. He wants to see the Senate use its new impeachment powers to target Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.
“I’ve had statements before calling for his resignation,” Knodl said. “I just don’t feel that — when we see the revolving door, that’s where it comes to in Milwaukee. We see the court cases, we see the aftermath of people getting out with low bail specifically, and causing even more harm. That’s a problem — and that goes to the prosecutor. ”
“It’s a classic move to point to an individual, a representative — trying to keep our community safe — and blame them for the very things that their policies are causing,” said Habush Sinykin.