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A UW-Madison student votes at the Red Gym in April 2016.


STEVENS POINT — In an election year that defies explanation, an interesting subplot may be emerging in Wisconsin.

After years of seemingly having no rural strategy, the Democratic Party has managed to field attractive, new candidates in a number of outstate races. How this plays out in a year when anything is possible could be good news in a state where the combination of the 2010 tea party peak and rigged redistricting that followed have tilted the playing field too far in one direction.

Republicans enjoyed a surge of new faces as a result of the 2010 election, which followed the Great Recession. This election could do the same for the Democrats. Is it enough to, perhaps, tip the state Senate to the Dems? We’ll see. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may help with that. In any case, it’s nice to see a crop of new faces, some of them from the potent millennial generation, step in and take over. The old guard would do well to give them both support and leeway in how they run their campaigns. Outstate, anyway, independence from Madison goes a long way. Some of these new candidates are distancing themselves accordingly, and it’s a good thing.

Candidates like Sarah Lloyd, a Columbia County farmer running against incumbent Glenn Grothman in the 6th Congressional District, are emerging as new leaders. Sarah is well known in sustainable agriculture circles and has a good grasp of issues like trade agreements and their impacts on average folks. Whether she can prevail in one of the mostly oddly gerrymandered congressional districts in the state remains to be seen. But look for her to be a breath of fresh air against Grothman and his extreme, downright spooky positions.

Waupaca Mayor Brian Smith, a successful business operator, is challenging state Sen. Luther Olsen in the 14th District. Smith’s campaign highlights what will be the major strengths of Democrats running against the Walker years: a return to local control and support for local schools, clean drinking water and investment in Wisconsin’s infrastructure. Local schools, especially, are important to the emerging block of young voters. They’re the ones concerned about good schools and jobs to give their kids a chance to stay home rather than fleeing rural Wisconsin to urban areas.

Dmitri Martin, another new face from Waupaca, is running against incumbent Kevin Petersen in the 40th Assembly District. Martin also touts his independence and the focus on local schools and local control. Like Lloyd, he’s a Sanders Democrat, appealing to young progressives who created their own political revolution this election cycle.

Bryan Van Stippen is another young face, running against the extreme and kooky politics of state Sen. Tom Tiffany in the 12th Senate District in northern Wisconsin. Van Stippen, too, is focusing on support for struggling rural schools at a time when funding in many districts has declined year after year. Want proof that the Republicans know they’ve gone too far? They’ve stepped back a bit from all-out assault on public schools, which are the heart and soul of rural communities.

Van Stippen is a successful business operator, too, unlike Tiffany, who failed in the business world and ran for office in search of a paycheck.

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Lynn Utesch, a veteran, farmer and clean water advocate, has emerged as a candidate in the 1st Assembly District in northeast Wisconsin. He lives in Kewaunee County, the epicenter of a major dispute over rural water quality and concentrated animal feeding operations. The 1st District seat is open, and Utesch may be one of the first candidates to gain office as a result of what the Center for Investigative Journalism recently identified as “water politics.”

Who knows how these new faces will fare? But the fact that they’ve emerged in a presidential election year is good news.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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