Joe Wineke is feeling mighty grateful these days. The Democratic Party, of which he serves as state chair, has not controlled both houses of the state Legislature since 1994. But Wineke thinks that could change in 2008, in large part due to the actions of one man.
"Thank you, George Bush," he exclaims.
Wisconsin Democrats hope a national wave of dissatisfaction with Republicans and the Bush administration will propel them into a majority in the state Assembly this November.
In 2006, Democrats swept control of the House and Senate in Washington, D.C. In Wisconsin, Dems took control of the state Senate and gained eight seats in the Assembly, leaving Republicans clinging to a bare 52-47 majority.
Before that, the Dems had lost seats in the Wisconsin Legislature in every two-year election cycle since 1990.
This year, most polls are trending in the Democrats' favor. On just about every issue, from health care to job creation to managing the war in Iraq, survey respondents think Democrats are a better choice.
"If 2008 is another strong Democratic year nationally, that could be difficult for Republicans in the state Legislature," says Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison professor of political science. "People develop partisan attitudes that are influenced by the presidential race that spill over in the state races."
If the Dems do maintain control of the state Senate, where they have a three-seat majority, and gain control of the Assembly, it will be the first time since 1986 that the party had held both the legislative and executive branches of state government.
To this end, the Dems are targeting a number of Republican districts they think are vulnerable. They note that, when he was reelected in 2006, Gov. Doyle received a majority of votes in 19 Assembly districts that are currently held by Republicans. The Democrats only need to win three of those districts to gain a majority in the Assembly.
"If Jim Doyle can win in Appleton or Oshkosh, then so can other Democrats," says Wineke. He adds that even historically Republican strongholds like the Fox Valley and the northern suburbs of Milwaukee are now in play, because many voters there are dissatisfied with the GOP's foreign policy and social agenda.
"One, they don't like the war in Iraq, and two, they don't like government telling them how to live their lives," says Wineke. These wealthy suburban districts are even becoming sources of money for the Dems.
But raising money and blasting Republicans is only part of the equation. "The best thing we can do to take the majority is recruit good candidates," says state Rep. Marc Pocan (D-Madison), a four-term Assembly veteran who has never served in the majority.
Candidates have until early July to file for the fall elections, but right now it looks like more than a dozen Republican members of the Assembly will face challenges.
"People are eager to run as Democrats, and the Republicans are not eager to enter a race," says state Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona). "We're having primaries in regions where we used to have problems recruiting candidates."
Democrats will hold primaries in at least five Assembly districts, including three in and around Dane County. Reflects Franklin, "If you're a Democrat who's had your eye on a state legislative seat, doing it in a year that looks like a bad year for Republicans makes more career sense."
But Kristen Dexter, a member of the Altoona Board of Education, says she's challenging Rep. Terry Moulton (R-Eau Claire) because her three children are old enough for her to pursue politics. "The fact that it could be a good year for Democrats, that remains to be seen," she says. "That didn't inform my decision in any way."
Dexter sees health care as the dominant issue for this election. "I think we'll be spinning our wheels in every other area until we get health-care reform."
Another Democratic challenger, Dale Klemme of Prairie du Chien, argues that reforming health care is the best way to limit property tax increases: "In the education system, in the county government system or the city government system, it's the health-care costs that drive the budget."
Barry Burden, a UW-Madison professor of political science, says health care appeals to both the "beer drinking" and "wine drinking" factions of the Democratic Party. But other issues, like immigration, may prove more divisive. For instance, unions and African Americans often see immigration as a threat to their job security and are less likely than "wine drinking" liberals to back immigration reform as a social-justice issue.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin Democrats, the political conversation in 2008 will be dominated by the presidential race. The two parties' presidential candidates and their allies will likely spend more than 10 times as much money on advertisements in Wisconsin than in every Wisconsin legislative race combined.
And there won't be any key statewide races this fall, for governor, attorney general or U.S. Senate, to highlight state and local concerns. The biggest issues, says Pocan, "will be whatever the presidential campaigns are talking about."
Presidential elections drive turnout. In a nonpresidential year, 15,000 people might vote in a given Assembly district. But an additional 10,000 people could show up to cast a ballot for president.
Sen. Miller says this should work in his party's favor: "I always believe that the more people vote, the better Democrats do." Professor Franklin agrees that high turnout "favors whichever party is enjoying a short-term advantage," which in this case appears to be the Democrats.
But Republicans here believe they can hold their own. "Back in 1992, when Feingold and Clinton were mopping up Wisconsin, the Assembly Republicans picked up six seats," says Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Jefferson disputes that 2008 will be another banner year for Democrats. While he agrees George W. Bush and his policies hurt Wisconsin's legislative Republicans in 2006, he notes that the party's standard bearer this year will be whoever clinches the GOP nomination, not Bush.
"We're optimistic that  is going to be a better year than 2006 and a better landscape for Republicans," says Jefferson. "I think the Democrats share the blame right now with control of Congress and control of [the Wisconsin state Senate]."
Jefferson has a point. President Bush's approval rating has been languishing between 28% and 35%. But the approval rating for the Democratic Congress is even lower, at between 19% and 25%.
Democrats say those dismal numbers are a response to Congress' inability to end the war in Iraq, not general disdain for Democrats. But the Democrats shouldn't count their votes before they're cast. There are still 10 months to go until the 2008 election, plenty of time for both the national Democratic Party and its Wisconsin incarnation to self-destruct.
"If you were going to bet today, you would bet that [a Democratic victory is] likely," says Franklin. "But there's an awful lot that can change between now and October."