With a huge field of Democrats vying to challenge GOP Gov. Scott Walker in next fall’s election, the only thing certain is uncertainty.
Of the 17 Democrats so far who have registered to run for governor in 2018, experts say eight to 10 are considered serious candidates. Two of them, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and state Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire, are from west-central Wisconsin.
That raises a key question for Democrats seeking to deny Walker a third term: Would it be an advantage or disadvantage to select a candidate from regions outside the traditional Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee?
State party leaders are officially neutral and said a candidate’s home region is just one of many factors voters may consider when choosing the Democratic nominee in the Aug. 14 partisan primary. The general election is a year from Monday.
Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, insisted the crowded field bodes well for the party’s chances to take back the governor’s mansion from Walker, who was scheduled to formally launch his re-election campaign today.
“It is great to have so many people talking about what the Democratic plan is and what we’re going to do to turn things around,” Laning said. “It is great to have people regularly calling out Gov. Walker for making bad choices and pointing out that the Republican agenda, this trickle down economics, doesn’t work.”
Other Democrats running include state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, Milwaukee area businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, former state Democratic Party chair Matt Flynn and former state Rep. Brett Hulsey of Madison. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin also has said he is considering a run.
An absence of “marquee names” could open the door to candidates such as Wachs and Vinehout, who are from a part of the state that normally doesn’t get as much attention from the Democratic Party, said Rodd Freitag, a political science professor at UW-Eau Claire.
Lisa Herrmann, chair of the 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party, would love to see Democrats pick one of the candidates from her district. She maintained that one of the so-called out-state candidates could help the party connect with rural voters who have supported Walker in recent elections.
“I think choosing Dana or Kathleen could play out to the advantage of Democrats in the general election,” Herrmann said. “As we go through winter, I think rural voters are going to start to feel like somebody has come to them.”
Even if Wachs or Vinehout don’t win the nomination, Herrmann said, their presence through the primary campaign could help motivate rural voters to go to the polls out of the belief that Democrats care about them.
“That’s probably going to be the crux of everything,” Herrmann said. “If the winning candidate is not one of the two from this district, I hope and pray the winning candidate has a good plan to pick up and motivate rural voters.”
Wachs is making his out-state roots — he was born and raised in Eau Claire and has been a hunter and fisherman his whole life — a central part of his campaign.
“We’re making a concerted effort in rural areas as well as urban areas,” Wachs said. “We’re paying a lot of attention to northern Wisconsin.”
After a long history of Democrats choosing mostly candidates from the Madison and Milwaukee areas, he said, “We’ve got to do something different.”
Part of Wachs’ strategy is spending a lot of time listening to the concerns of people in rural parts of the state.
“I think a lot of folks in the rural areas feel like Madison has lectured them over the years, but we’re listening and we’re talking and it’s a two-way process,” he said.
Wachs even puts a rural spin on some of the core issues he has been emphasizing, saying he wants to protect groundwater from corporate farms and fears that the waiving of environmental permit requirements by Walker and legislative Republicans for the Foxconn deal sets a terrible precedent that will lead other potentially polluting companies to demand the same treatment.
“If this continues, I worry there won’t be anyplace left to hunt and fish in Wisconsin,” he said.
Wachs, who has announced endorsements from several legislators and was appointed by the Assembly minority leader last week to the board of directors of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., expressed confidence his message will resonate statewide.
“I can win this race, and I think Gov. Walker knows that as well,” Wachs said, noting that he was targeted by negative mailings before he even announced his candidacy.
The state Republican Party has attacked Wachs, a partner in an Eau Claire law firm, for his legislative record, with state party spokesman Alec Zimmerman accusing Wachs of “exploiting the system with legislation that would put money into the pockets of trial attorneys like him and his friends.”
Straight from the farm
For Vinehout, who lives on a Buffalo County dairy farm, her rural bona fides are undeniable.
While she recognizes the importance of building support in Madison and Milwaukee and has been doing so neighborhood by neighborhood, Vinehout also said she believes her background can help her connect with rural voters.
“I’d like to think it’s a good time for an out-state candidate,” Vinehout said, pointing to the “sobering” electoral map after the 2016 election that showed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump winning almost every rural county in the state en route to becoming the first Republican to take Wisconsin in 32 years.
However, Vinehout said her own research led her to a different conclusion than the conventional wisdom about how that happened.
While political insiders were asking her if she could speak “angry white man” to appeal to swing voters who many people believe switched their vote from Democratic to Republican, Vinehout said, she believes Trump was buoyed more by people who voted for the first time to support him.
At the same time, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was unable to motivate many people who normally vote Democratic to show up at the polls.
Vinehout hopes to get those people engaged again, but not by talking more like Trump.
“The Democrats need to talk more Democratic, more progressive, to show how Democratic policies and Democratic candidates can make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “People should not come to Election Day in 2018 and say, ‘It doesn’t make any difference which party I vote for.”
Vinehout consistently has performed well in an annual straw poll of attendees at the state Democratic convention conducted by WisPolitics.com. Her task is to break beyond the base and connect with more casual Democrats who may not be familiar with her yet, said JR Ross, editor of the state political website.
Republicans are taking Vinehout’s candidacy seriously enough that they criticized her recently for writing a character reference letter for former Wisconsin Legislative Council attorney David L. Lovell, who was found guilty of possession of child pornography.
Vinehout said she wrote the letter when asked to describe Lovell’s work and thinks voters will understand that.
“He was a good worker, but he did something very bad, and now he’s in prison paying for that,” Vinehout said of Lovell.
An obvious challenge for out-state candidates is that the urban areas represented by Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties typically provide about 40 percent of Democratic votes in the state, Ross said.
The result is that candidates have to walk a fine line of trying to excite the political base in those high-population areas while still appealing to rural voters, he said.
Those dynamics potentially pose a major hurdle for out-state candidates in a crowded primary.
“If the Democrats want to win the general election, they’re going to need to do a little better … in rural areas, but in the primary, it’s a different problem,” said Freitag, the UW-Eau Claire political scientist. “In the primary, people tend to vote for the person they’re most familiar with, and thus we tend to get candidates from Milwaukee and Madison, where most of the voters are.”
But if the urban vote is split among several candidates, Herrmann, the 3rd Congressional District Democratic chair, said, that could improve the chances that Vinehout or Wachs could win the nomination.
The race Ross called “a big, jumbled mess” likely will get clearer early in 2018 when it becomes apparent which candidates are able to raise enough money to mount a credible challenge to Walker, Ross said. He called Walker “the best political fundraiser in Wisconsin history, hands down.”
Freitag also stressed the importance of money and a strong campaign organization to help candidates become known around the state.
“Some of these candidates will rise or fall based on how much money they raise,” he said.
Vinehout said her grass-roots campaign, with a theme of “People first,” will emphasize building a strong volunteer organization around the state.
“In this kind of race where there are so many candidates and there will be so much congestion in the airways, I believe the campaign that does the best job of attracting people in their neighborhoods will do better than the ones who get the big donors,” Vinehout said.
Along the same lines, instead of recruiting endorsements from big names in the party, she plans to emphasize supporters from all corners of the state.
Opinions are split over whether Walker is vulnerable and thus whether all the maneuvering on the Democratic side is even meaningful.
Zimmerman, the GOP spokesman, argued Walker is in a strong position.
“Thanks to Gov. Walker’s leadership, more people are working than ever before, taxes for hard-working families have been cut by billions, and classrooms are seeing a historic investment,” Zimmerman said in a statement. “While Gov. Walker delivers results, Democrats are clinging to failed policies and desperate attacks.”
Laning maintained the governor is vulnerable because he has failed to deliver on many promises and guided the state to its highest poverty rate in decades with policies that benefit his wealthy donors.
“People know they’re suffering, and they want to know that they have leaders who are going to address the issues that matter to them,” Laning said.
While Walker’s approval ratings have climbed steadily since he dropped out of the 2016 GOP presidential primary race, some polls still show more people disapprove than approve of the job the governor is doing.
The fact that the economy is growing plays in the governor’s favor, although he still hasn’t achieved his stated first-term goal of creating 250,000 jobs, Freitag said. It also was certainly no accident that the state budget passed this year was friendlier to K-12 schools and higher education than in recent bienniums, he said.
On the other hand, the party in power traditionally doesn’t do well in off-year elections, and Trump’s low approval ratings normally would suggest even bigger problems for Republicans, who control state and national government, Ross said.
“But after last year, I’m not comfortable making any predictions,” Ross said. “The truth is, nobody has any clue what 2018 will look like.”
Herrmann agreed, saying opinions change rapidly in today’s political climate and a lot seems to depend on the issue of the moment.
“I’m afraid that it may come down to who’s in the right place at the right time,” she said.
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Democrats Dana Wachs of Eau Claire and Kathleen Vinehout of Alma hope to prove the pundits wrong that a gubernatorial candidate not from Madison or Milwaukee can’t win in Wisconsin