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Game On: The Campaign for Wisconsin Governor

The race to succeed Gov. Jim Doyle takes shape

Sep. 30, 2009
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An open seat in the governor’s chair is a rare thing.

Yet the race to succeed Gov. Jim Doyle is attracting few candidates from both political parties.

On the Democratic side, only Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and 17-year-old Jared Christiansen of Ellsworth have registered as candidates. Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse opted out last week. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk both ran for governor in the 2002 primary and have support around the state, but haven’t made a decision.

Republican candidates include Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, former Congressman Mark Neumann of Nashotah, Appleton businessman Mark Todd, Bill Ingram of Durand, and the anti-communist John Schiess of Rice Lake. Names of various business owners have been floated as well.

We spoke to the major candidates, their supporters and those who are closely watching the gubernatorial race take shape to find out what the insiders know about the race. They’re calculating how much money needs to be raised, who has the credibility and freedom to pursue a statewide office, and why so few potential candidates are ready to make a run.

Doyle’s Departure

Doyle’s Aug. 17 announcement that he wouldn’t run for a third term surprised many, since he had been acting like a candidate, building a campaign team, and raising funds right up until the end.

But his withdrawal from the race doesn’t mean that he’s disappeared.

“I know that Gov. Doyle is very committed to a big Democratic victory next year,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Mike Tate. “He very much wants to see a Democratic successor. I think that he will play a very active role over the course of the next 12 or 14 months.”

That’s important, because Doyle has almost $2 million in campaign funds that could be used to support Democrats. Some contributors will obviously be asking for their money back, but he will still be left with a considerable balance. Doyle has also built up a network of supporters and excampaign aides.

“Certainly there are many folks who have worked for Gov. Doyle in his last five races who are scattered throughout Wisconsin political, business and community organizations,” said consultant Thad Nation, a former Doyle communications director. “It’s a very strong group of people who will play an active role in the campaign of the Democratic candidate, whoever that will be.”

And while state Republicans had been licking their chops over the chance to run against Doyle, state Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus said he doesn’t regret not having Doyle to kick around any more.

“The best thing other than running against Doyle is having an open seat,” Priebus told the Shepherd. “It makes things a lot simpler as far as campaigning and money. It frees up money when you don’t have an incumbent to run against. It clearly puts Wisconsin on a national map as far as being a targeted state, both by the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.”

After all, the next candidate will be in office during the 2012 presidential campaign, and could wield a lot of influence over the way this swing state votes.

While the Republicans are fired up about 2010, Doyle’s somewhat late withdrawal from the race has given his fellow Democrats just over a year to gather support, launch a statewide campaign and emerge victorious in the September 2010 primary—and be poised to win in November. Only Lt. Gov. Lawton was ready to launch a campaign immediately.

“It’s coming up fast, faster than people realize,” said James Klauser, former top aide to Gov. Tommy Thompson.

But there may be a slight advantage to the compressed campaign calendar.

“It’s a shorter amount of time to run a campaign, but it’s also a shorter amount of time to have people take potshots at you,” Nation said.

Why So Few Candidates?

In a word: money. And another: opportunity.

“It’s hard to break in,” said Common Cause in Wisconsin’s co-chair and longtime Republican strategist Bill Kraus. “Here’s an open seat and you can’t think of any candidates—it’s appalling, totally appalling.”

It has been conjectured that candidates will have to raise up to $10 million to make it to the general election. And then there are the independent expenditures by third-party interest groups supporting both parties. These independent expenditure ads can end up drowning out the messages of the candidates.

Money can also be a barrier for those just entering politics—for example, those who want to run for local offices or the state Legislature. These races are more expensive for a challenger running against an entrenched incumbent.

Former gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey said he tries to encourage potential candidates but they’re put off by the amount of money they must raise—about a million for a competitive state Senate run, for example.

“It’s sad because there are some really good people who I think should be considering it, but who give up right at the starting line,” Garvey said.

Kraus, though, says that current politicos lack the “fire in the belly” that they once had. They get comfortable in their safe seats and see their current positions as their jobs. They rarely try for a riskier race that would put their own seat in jeopardy.

“They’re in it for the job, and they’re afraid to give up their job,” Kraus said.

But the dearth of candidates isn’t a good thing for voters or candidates. Contested primaries provide voters with greater choice, fire up the base, get a candidate’s message out to the voters, and build name recognition and support. Just imagine if Sen. John McCain had duked it out in all 50 states with another Republican, the way the Democratic presidential candidates created drama for months across the country. McCain and his opponent would have remained in the headlines, built up a national grassroots campaign, and become a familiar face to low-information voters.

The same is true at the state level, even if candidates and their staffers don’t like to spend money and energy on an intra-party battle.

Thompson aide Klauser endorsed former Congressman Mark Neumann back in April, practically ensuring that the Republicans would have a competitive primary next September. He said recent history shows that Wisconsin governors win because they were successfully tested during a primary race.

“If they don’t have a primary, they don’t get out there and they don’t work as hard,” Klauser said. “Scott Walker is working harder as a result of Mark Neumann getting in. I’ve told Scott he needs a primary. I said, ‘It’s pretty hard for you to get an opponent in a primary, but if you want to win this election, you need a good primary.’”

And, thanks to Klauser’s early backing of Neumann, Walker will likely get one.

The Democrats

Just one serious Democrat has declared— Lt. Gov. Lawton—while those close to Barrett say he’s following the race but hasn’t made a final decision. Kathleen Falk is said to be busy with her county budget, to be delivered on Oct. 1, and hasn’t made calls or formed a campaign committee. Yet “she hasn’t shut any doors,” said Melissa Mulliken, Falk’s political adviser. Also considering runs are Timothy John of Oconomowoc, a businessman, and Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Lawton has a number of advantages besides a jump-start on her competitors and some early endorsements. For the past seven years, Lawton has been able to go around the state as lieutenant championing causes like women’s issues, veterans’ issues and the arts, while not having to take any tough votes or make difficult decisions in preparing a budget.

Although Lawton reported having only $51,000 in the bank in July, she’s putting together a campaign team, raising money and gathering endorsements, and she has a strong network of progressive activists around the state. She can pull in the support of upstate residents, women and the arts community, and, as a Spanish speaker, can communicate with an emerging bloc of new voters.

Kraus, of Common Cause, called Lawton a strong candidate who should not be underestimated.

“For the limited role Doyle gave her, she’s exploited it brilliantly,” Kraus said. “She’s bringing together some of the regulars around her. She’s making calls to people who have all the credentials and contacts and know how to run campaigns and how to raise money.”

Then there’s Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who hasn’t announced a formal decision either way but will probably enter the race. Barrett wouldn’t have to give up his day job to run, but being a “liberal mayor from Milwaukee,” as Priebus put it, may not play well in the rest of the state. It’s almost a given in Wisconsin politics that a Milwaukee Democrat can’t win statewide, but this year the opposite might be true. A Milwaukee Democrat is needed on the ticket if Scott Walker, a Milwaukee County Republican, is the victor in the Republican primary, since Milwaukee is the source of many Democratic-leaning voters.

The Milwaukee angle clearly has some distinct advantages. Roughly 40% of the state’s voters can be found in the Milwaukee media market, where Barrett is already a household name—and a local hero for sustaining injuries while defending a woman and her grandchild.

Barrett also has at least $800,000 in his war chest, which can be used for a gubernatorial race. He’s already made one statewide run—in 2002, when he finished a close second in a contested primary—and he still retains much good will among his supporters around the state.

Finally, Barrett understands that without a competitive Democratic primary, the Republicans will almost certainly win in November.

So will Barrett get in the race? Right now he is still recovering from his injuries and has four children who are teens or pre-teens, so he needs to win the support of his family to make the run. Also, over the past year, Mayor Barrett alienated and angered some of his strongest and most loyal supporters.

The Republicans

Republicans, on the other hand, seem to have been running since the vote count was over in the 2006 campaign. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has not been shy about his desire to become governor— this is his second run, having exited the 2006 race before the primary to allow then-Congressman Mark Green to run unopposed. (Walker’s campaign did not return the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.)

But in April, an open letter from Republican heavyweight Jim Klauser announcing his support for former congressman and successful businessman Mark Neumann seemed to ignite the Republican gubernatorial race.

“Elections are choices and everyone has to make a choice when there is a choice,” Klauser said.

Walker is a crafty politician, and as of July had $1.1 million in the bank. He’s gathered support from the Bradley Foundation’s Michael Grebe and other conservatives.

But Walker is a major target for Democrats thanks to his highly ideological tenure as county executive.

“I personally think that his leadership is a record of failure,” the Democrats’ Tate said. “How many times has the county board had to step in and take the reins away from him? He’s like a petulant child.”

Walker’s embrace of the anti-tax tea partiers—including appearing at a recent event with ultraconservative pundit Michelle Malkin and campaign prop Joe the Plumber— could help him in the Republican primary, but it may put off more moderate Republicans and independent voters during the general election.

“Scott Walker has a long history of ties to the fringe of the Republican Party, whether it was the CRG in Milwaukee County or the tea-baggers now statewide and nationally,” said consultant Nation.

But he noted that befriending extremists isn’t a good long-term strategy.

“This is the type of movement that can very easily turn out to be a very bad decision,” Nation said.

Yet some give Walker an advantage as a Republican who has run strong in primarily Democratic Milwaukee County, where state-level Democrats must win big if they are to win at all.

But Neumann supporter Klauser called that analysis “superficial.”

“Winning a county executive race in a spring election with a low turnout is nothing compared to a fall turnout when it’s partisan,” Klauser said.

To differentiate himself from Walker, the undeniably conservative Neumann has been highlighting his experience in the home-building field and as co-chair of Educational Enterprises Inc., which manages three voucher schools and one charter school, as well as his time in Congress.

“Who do you want running the state?” Neumann asked in an interview with the Shepherd. “Someone with successful public experience and who has been back in the private sector making jobs for the past 10 years, or someone who has had their entire career in politics?”

GOP Party Chair Priebus said no matter who the Republican candidate is, 2010 is “absolutely” a Republican year.“The historical pendulum is swinging in our direction,” Priebus said.

But Klauser was more cautious about 2010. “I don’t know that it’s a Republican year yet,” he said. “But people are dissatisfied with what’s going on.”

Tate, meanwhile, was confident about the Democrats’ prospects next fall. “I’m not really afraid of either Mark Neumann or Scott Walker,” Tate said. “I think we could beat both of them like a drum.”


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