With eight Democratic candidates still in the race, many Chippewa Valley Democrats are having a difficult time deciding who to vote for in Tuesday’s partisan primary.
The conundrum was evident Thursday morning during a weekly Coffee Klatch discussion — the last one before the primary — at the Democratic campaign headquarters in Eau Claire. Not only did several of the 35 or so participants express support for different candidates, but some acknowledged they still didn’t know which candidate would get their vote.
And these are party insiders, most of whom have been attending forums and following the race closely for more than a year.
Consider the case of Chuck Russell of Eau Claire. He revealed to the group that he and his wife were debating who to choose as they drove to the polls for early voting.
Likewise, Mike O’Brien of Eau Claire said he planned to place an early ballot immediately after the gathering but still wasn’t sure which candidate would receive his vote.
The Democratic field, which once had nearly 20 candidates, is now down to the last eight standing: state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, state firefighters union leader Mahlon Mitchell, activist Mike McCabe, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, and attorney and former UW-Eau Claire student Josh Pade.
While some Democrats expressed concern that the large field has prevented one candidate from building momentum to take on two-term incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker, others seemed to revel in having so many good choices.
Former Eau Claire school board President Carol Craig, who moderated Thursday’s meeting, put a sweet spin on the situation.
“Most people think there are a number of good choices,” Craig said. “It’s like when you have a buffet full of desserts you enjoy. Which one are you going to pick? They all have something to offer.”
Bobbi Green of Eau Claire echoed that sentiment, calling the choice facing Democratic primary voters “an embarrassment of riches.”
“All of these candidates are good candidates and have their hearts in the right place,” said Lisa Herrmann, chairwoman of the 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party.
While she insisted the bountiful field only served to get engaged voters even more engaged in determining their favorite candidate, Herrmann acknowledged the presence of so many candidates might seem overwhelming to more casual observers of politics.
The choice is ...
By Tuesday, voters in the Democratic primary have to make a decision, and several were willing to share their choice and the reasons they came to the conclusion they did.
After debating between Vinehout and Evers, Russell said he finally selected Vinehout because he knows she has detailed plans on how to address a variety of issues and has a history of being able to work with people on both sides of the aisle.
“Ultimately, her legislative experience was the deciding factor for me,” Russell said.
UW-Eau Claire senior Jake McGuire said he was leaning toward supporting Roys. While he initially backed Evers, McGuire said the more research he did, the more he was attracted to Roys’ candidacy.
McGuire appreciated Roys’ willingness to reach out to young voters and her plan to help rural school districts compete on an even playing field with rural districts.
“She has a passion and a drive to make things equal for everyone,” McGuire said, adding that Roys’ campaign seems to have picked up a lot of late momentum in terms of endorsements and fundraising, as reports show she raised more money and had more cash on hand than any other Democratic candidate in July.
State Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, who was part of the Democratic gubernatorial race until dropping out in June and endorsing Evers, called Evers a tireless advocate for Wisconsin’s schools, workers and families.
“I endorsed Tony because I think he will be the strongest Democratic candidate in the fall, he’s a very good human being and his heart is in the right place,” Wachs said.
UW-Eau Claire senior Lizzie Sandstrom, an elementary education major, said she plans to vote for Evers because she believes his experience as state superintendent will enable him to “really put public education in the forefront.”
‘Change the math’
Nik Novak of Eau Claire said he was attracted to McCabe, the longtime former head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, since meeting him about a year ago and hearing him emphasize how the Democratic Party should be for universal politics — living wages, health care, economic policies and high-speed internet for all.
“As a former civics teacher, probably the thing I identified with the most was his idea of vertical politics — focusing our thinking on those who don’t have power and those who don’t have money and resources, and those who lack a political voice instead of the usual focus on the donor class that buys elections,” Novak said, recognizing that some Democrats are uncomfortable with McCabe because of his history as an independent who prioritizes principles over party.
However, Novak insisted he believes McCabe is the best candidate to take on Walker because he has the potential to “change the math” from recent gubernatorial elections by appealing to independents, rural residents and disaffected voters in addition to traditional Democrats.
Bob Andruszkiewicz of Eau Claire said he doesn’t worry about McCabe’s party affiliation history because of his support for Democratic values.
“Just the way he is running his campaign (refusing to accept any donations over $200) tells me I can trust him,” Andruszkiewicz said.
Green said she was drawn to Flynn after seeing his performance at the candidate forum last December in Eau Claire. Though she’d never heard his name before that forum, Green came away impressed with his toughness and intelligence and convinced he would be the Democrat to best go toe-to-toe with Walker in debates.
“Matt is just super sharp and unflappable,” Green said. “He’s never shied away from a tough fight, and I think he would smear the stage with Scott Walker.”
Pam Lee of Eau Claire said she has supported Flynn since the same forum after he impressed her with his knowledge of the issues.
Jackie Christner of Eau Claire is another Vinehout supporter who has been particularly impressed with the senator’s ability to compose alternative state budgets that show how Democratic priorities could be funded without raising taxes.
“She’s a policy wonk and she works harder, in my opinion, than all the other candidates,” Christner said.
Eleanor Wolf of Eau Claire said she is leaning toward voting for Roys but would happily support whichever Democrat emerges from the primary.
“It’s a very difficult situation for a lot of us hard-core Democrats,” Wolf said. “It would be nice to have one clear-cut candidate that everyone was behind.”
Tom Burns of Eau Claire voted early before undergoing hip replacement surgery. While his heart told him to vote for Vinehout, Burns instead followed what he considered a pragmatic approach by casting his ballot for Evers.
“It was a tough choice, but I just felt I had to vote for the candidate who I think has the best chance to beat Walker,” Burns said.
Leader in the polls
Indeed, the latest Marquette University Law School suggests Evers should be considered the favorite, though not a lock, to win the primary.
The poll released July 18 showed Evers with the support of 31 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, with none of the other candidates polling higher than 10 percent.
Evers enjoys a major advantage in statewide name recognition over the other candidates after winning three superintendent elections in the past nine years, all with at least 57 percent of the vote, said Geoff Peterson, chairman of the political science department at UW-Eau Claire.
“A lot of people at least already know who he is. That’s a huge plus for him,” Peterson said, cautioning that “anything is possible in politics.”
McCabe also enjoys a fair amount of statewide name recognition from his work with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and his social justice emphasis could attract Democrats who supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Peterson said.
With the Marquette poll indicating 38 percent of voters were undecided and turnout in Wisconsin’s partisan primaries averaging only 15 percent over the past decade, several local Democrats said the outcome is by no means assured.
“Tony does have a commanding lead among those who have chosen a candidate, but you just don’t know how these late-breaking voters are going to go,” said former state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, who had been serving as an adviser to the Wachs campaign. “The polling leaves open the possibility of a surprise yet.”
Herrmann agreed, saying, “I think an upset is entirely possible. It’s really going to hinge on who turns out their voters.”
Does it matter?
Regardless of which Democrat emerges from the pack on Tuesday, 3rd District GOP Chairman Brian Westrate said that candidate faces a steep uphill battle to mount a strong challenge to Walker in the 12 remaining weeks before the Nov. 6 general election.
“That’s just not very much time,” Westrate said. “I guarantee you that no party would prefer to have an eight-way race this long, especially when running against a sitting multi-term incumbent.”
The crowded field makes it too difficult for voters to know all the candidates and dilutes the campaign donations that otherwise could have gone toward the eventual winner, he said.
“I think this primary was a gift-wrapped present for the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Gov. Walker,” Westrate said.
But Democrats all insisted they believe Walker is vulnerable, party members are energized and they are confident Democratic voters and donors, even those with strong allegiances, will rally behind the primary winner in an effort to ride the much-discussed potential “blue wave.”
“We have a variety of good candidates to choose from, and on Tuesday we narrow that to one,” Herrmann said. “As soon as that happens, we’ll all get behind that candidate and gear up to beat Walker in the fall.”
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• Polls will be open statewide from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
• Crossover voting is not allowed in partisan primaries in Wisconsin, so voters must choose one party to favor in all races and stick with it.
• Voters can learn about their polling place, how to register, photo ID requirements and what’s on their ballot at myvote.wi.gov, or by calling your local city, village or town hall.