- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald both said it weeks ahead of Tuesday’s elections: Donald Trump would help, not hurt, the Republican legislative leaders build their majorities. Democrats scoffed, but it looks like that’s just what happened.

Republicans dominated Wisconsin’s legislative races, not only maintaining their majorities in the Senate and Assembly but growing them to levels not seen in decades. Republicans have had complete control of state government since 2011; Tuesday’s victories coupled with Scott Walker’s continued presence in the governor’s office ensure the GOP will run everything for at least another two years.

“We certainly benefited from the Trump phenomenon,” an upbeat Fitzgerald said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “I could see it early this summer. (Republican) candidates kind of embraced that instead of shying away from it.”

Democrats didn’t have much hope of gaining control of either chamber. A law Republicans passed in 2011 redrew legislative district boundaries to consolidate GOP power, leaving only a handful of true swing districts and the GOP held an insurmountable 63-36 advantage in the Assembly heading into Election Day.

Still, Democrats saw a chance to at least make some gains in the Senate, where Republicans held an 18-14 edge with one open seat. They set their sights on the vacant seat and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon, one of the last GOP moderates in the chamber.

But their plans fell apart as soon as returns began flowing in Tuesday evening. Not only did no Republican incumbents lose, GOP challenger Dan Feyen bested Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris for the open seat and Patrick Testin knocked off incumbent Democrat Julie Lassa of Stevens Point to give Republicans a 20-12 advantage, their biggest majority since 1971.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, who spearheaded the Democrats’ Senate campaigns, had no immediate comment when asked for thoughts on how Republicans were able to win so many seats. Shilling has her own problems; as of Wednesday morning her race against Republican challenger Dan Kapanke was still too close to call. Returns showed her leading by just 58 votes.

Taking out Shilling would be a huge coup for Republicans. It would offer a modicum of revenge for Kapanke, who lost the seat to Shilling in a 2011 recall spurred by anger over Walker’s signature collective bargaining restrictions. A Shilling loss would leave Senate Democrats rudderless and derail any hopes she was harboring for a gubernatorial bid in 2018. A Kapanke win also would give Republicans a 21-seat majority, their biggest advantage since 1967, before man walked on the moon.

Shilling issued a statement saying she looked forward to continuing to serve in Madison but didn’t declare victory. Kapanke’s campaign manager didn’t immediately return messages. Fitzgerald said Kapanke was waiting for the official canvass before making any moves, but a recount request could be coming.

Meanwhile in the Assembly, Vos said back in September that he initially thought Trump, with his brash style and jaw-dropping remarks about women and immigrants, would hurt down-ticket Republicans. But the billionaire businessman was actually bringing out conservative voters, Vos said. He predicted Trump would create a “small positive” for them.

Indeed, Republicans didn’t lose any Assembly seats and Mondovi Mayor Treig Pronschinske defeated Democrat Chris Danou of Trempealeau to bring the GOP majority to 64-35. That’s the largest advantage Assembly Republicans have held since 1957.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, who was one of Trump’s biggest critics early in the campaign season, said Trump drew people who hadn’t voted in years to the polls. Vos said during a news conference that he was proud Trump was on the Republican ticket.

“So yes, Donald Trump being on the ticket was a help,” Vos said. “We said that over the course of the summer. When I spoke publicly I knew he would be a benefit to our candidates.”

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha issued a statement Wednesday calling the election “gut-wrenching and surprising.”

“Our state was swept in a Trump wave,” Barca said. “Democrats will never cease to be a voice for all the people - especially those who woke up this morning feeling alienated and powerless in their own country.”

Republicans’ first task when the legislative session begins in January will be crafting the 2017-19 state budget. Perhaps the biggest challenge they’ll face is figuring out how to plug a $1 billion shortfall in the state’s road building and maintenance fund. Walker wants to deal with the shortfall by delaying work on major projects and borrowing; Fitzgerald backs that approach but Vos has called it a short-term political solution that will exacerbate delays on southeastern Wisconsin freeway work, setting up an intra-party squabble before legislators take their oaths of office.

Fitzgerald and Vos said Wednesday that Republicans in both houses will have to prepare for ripple effects from changes Trump will make to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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