A small, bipartisan group of former politicians and political observers in the La Crosse area has been putting their money where their mouth is on the winners of local, state and national elections for nearly 50 years.
At Houghton’s Jackson Street Pub near Viterbo University in La Crosse, a group of seven people gather around a table days before the November election. Friday fish specials and pints of beer are on the table.
This is a group of one-time heavy political hitters. They gather around election time each year to talk politics and bet on the outcome of elections.
The current group includes a former Republican state Senate president and a Democrat who was a former president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.
Walter Baltz of West Salem has been a long-time supporter of Republican candidates. He’s also the only living founder of a little-known group which calls itself the Select Committee on Election Predictions.
“I have been the absolute loser. I have been the absolute winner, and I believe today, I’m one of the absolute winners,” he said.
Baltz used to have lunch in La Crosse in the late 1970s with a radio personality and a doctor. The conversation would often turn to politics.
“And we’d argue as to who was going to be the winner of the upcoming elections. And I finally got tired of so much baloney. I said, ‘The only way to get people to be honest about it is to put some money on it,'” he said.
The Select Committee has operated largely in obscurity over the years. The only public mention of it was in a New York Times article on the pulse of the 1988 presidential election. While Baltz can’t pinpoint when the group started, the Times article said it was in 1978.
Few rules govern the wagering the Select Committee does at least twice a year during the April and November general election.
“Anyone who is not a winner but was not the absolute loser, each one of those people would have to pay $5 to the absolute winner. The absolute loser had to buy lunch for everyone at the next event,” Baltz said.
The Friday before the November general election, the group gathers to pick statewide and local races. Key national elections are also on the ballot in case there’s a tie.
Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse emeritus professor of political scientist, has been a voting member and the Select Committee’s record keeper since the 1980s.
“I think all of us enjoy the camaraderie and the political discussions. I think we all respect each other,” Heim said. “We come from all sorts of different backgrounds, but we all seem to have contacts with enough political circles and political activities.”
Former La Crosse mayor and former longtime state Rep. John Medinger, D-La Crosse, has been a winner and a loser in the 20 years he’s been part of the group. He said politics might be better today if people with different ideas sat down and talked with each other like the Select Committee does.
“With this group, we’re here to be honest, and that’s why sometimes when we go down this list of people running for office, we wind up picking people that we don’t even like at all, but we figure that they’re going to win,” Medinger said.
Former state Senate President Brian Rude, R-Coon Valley, was asked to join the committee shortly after retiring from public office in 2000.
“I’m a big advocate of the old times, of people working together to solve problems. I hope someday we get back to trying to elect people who want to work together and solve problems because this country does have a lot of problems,” Rude said.
Baltz said when the group started and there were just three members, the loser used to have to pay for lavish meals including caviar, steaks and champaign. These days, there are eight members, and the group will consider adding new members in the future, including its first woman.