As Walker awaits, Burke hopes to make primary race a formality
MADISON—Democrats hoped Mary Burke would have an easy path toward challenging Gov. Scott Walker this fall, and by most accounts she has.
The party backed Burke's candidacy, she's raised millions of dollars, run television advertising statewide and focused all of her attention on stopping the Republican Walker from being elected to a second term in November.
Only one person stands in her way before she faces Walker — state Rep. Brett Hulsey, of Madison.
Hulsey has been largely shunned by the Democratic Party. He's raised almost no money, has no campaign staff, and frequently schedules campaign stops to suit his exercise routine or social calendar.
Democratic Party leaders made no secret about their hope to avoid an opponent for Burke in the Aug. 12 primary. Party chairman Mike Tate said last year he thought the three-way primary in 2012 weakened eventual nominee Tom Barrett, who went on to lose to Walker.
The field appeared to be clearing for Burke. Last August Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris decided not to run, citing concerns about his ability to raise enough money to be competitive. Burke is a millionaire thanks to her family business Trek and has already spent $400,000 of her own money on the race.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, a liberal Democrat who also ran in the 2012 recall, was exploring a run when she was injured in a December car accident and dropped out.
That appeared to leave Burke as the only candidate — and then came Hulsey, opting to mount a longshot bid for governor in April rather than seeking another Assembly term.
Polls show Hulsey is no real threat to Burke. Hulsey had only 3 percent support among Democrats while Burke had 66 percent in a May poll by the Marquette University Law School. The spread was so wide that the July poll didn't even bother asking voters about Hulsey.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden called Hulsey "a minor annoyance" for the Burke campaign.
"I don't think the general public is aware of his campaign and is not following it that closely," Burden said.
Still, Hulsey is embracing his largely quixotic campaign that comes after serving four years in the state Assembly and 14 years as a member of the Dane County Board. He previously worked 17 years for the Sierra Club and currently runs his own environmental consulting business.
"The secret of success my whole life is I've been too stupid to quit," Hulsey said as he walked door-to-door in a downtown Madison neighborhood in July. "Maybe it will work out this time. I don't know."
He's convinced Steve van den Oever, a 23-year-old Madison resident Hulsey encountered campaigning.
"I like that he is for the common person. That is something government has completely lost touch with," van den Oever said as Hulsey looked on, standing by his bike. "I love you, man."
Hulsey has cast himself as the true Democrat in the race, criticizing Burke's credentials as a member of the Madison school board, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive and a former state Commerce secretary.
Both Burke and Walker have ignored Hulsey. Walker, when asked to assess Hulsey's candidacy in July, simply said it was "entertaining." No debates are scheduled, even though Hulsey asked for 72.
"My plan has been the same from the start," Burke said in late July. "I'm working hard. I'm making sure that the people of Wisconsin get to know me, my values, the type of governor I'll be and my plans for how I'm going to move Wisconsin forward and how I'm going to make sure that our economy turns around and is a leader and not a lagger. That's my game plan, and that's the same whether it's the primary or Nov. 4th."
The winner of the Democratic primary for governor will be paired with the winner of the lieutenant governor primary. They will face Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who are unopposed.
In the Democratic lieutenant governor's race, state Sen. John Lehman, of Racine, faces Mary Jo Walters, of Madison. Lehman is a former high school teacher who served eight years in the state Assembly and four in the state Senate before losing in 2010. However, he ran in the June 2012 recall election and defeated Republican Van Wanggaard.
Rather than run against Wanggaard this year, in a district that was redrawn and now favors Republicans, Lehman decided to run for lieutenant governor.
Walters, who became politically active during the union fight and frequently attended protests in the Capitol, is running her first campaign on a shoestring budget.