Steven Walters: Despite low turnout, primary voters made news in Wisconsin

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Steven Walters
Monday, August 18, 2014

It may have attracted only 10 percent of voters, but last week's primary made news.

-- Two top-of-the-ticket Democratic female candidates.

For the first time, Wisconsin voters will get a chance Nov. 4 to elect Democratic women to two of the most important offices: Madison's Mary Burke as governor and Jefferson's Susan Happ as attorney general.

Burke would be the first female governor; Happ the second woman attorney general.

Burke, Happ and their campaign advisers must now decide how much—if any—of a partnership they should explore. Busy learning how to be first-time candidates for important jobs, their paths rarely crossed before Tuesday.

The two campaigns must decide if the synergy in a Burke/Happ joint pitch would help both of them, one more than the other, or neither.

They also must decide how much to trust each other because they have such different styles. So far, Happ seems more willing to take risks than Burke.

For example, it's unlikely that Burke will film a TV ad in which she rolls up on a Harley to discuss her tough-on-crime record and love of hunting. But that was the TV ad Happ used, and one that impressed some Republicans, to introduce herself to voters.

Political pros such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he didn't know what to expect with two women leading the Democratic Party's ticket for statewide office. But voters don't decide based on a candidate's gender, Vos insisted.

State Democratic Chairman Mike Tate agreed: “Voters didn't pick them because they are women.”

Mordecai Lee, UW-Milwaukee political scientist and former Democratic legislator, said the Burke and Happ candidacies, and the 2012 victory by Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, “finally shattered the glass ceiling for women in politics.”

-- Democratic Rep. Fred Kessler's revenge.

Kessler, a wily ex-judge who has served three Assembly stints starting in the 1960s, has played effective behind-the-scenes roles in dozens of Milwaukee Democratic primaries.

Kessler's recent political trophies include the win by Senate Democratic Leader Chris Larson over then-Democratic Sen. Jeff Plale in 2010 and, last Tuesday, the victory of Larson aide Jonathan Brostoff over Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic for Milwaukee's east side Assembly seat.

But Kessler also went out of his way to derail the attempted comeback of former Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan of Janesville. Sheridan wanted to replace Sen. Tim Cullen.

Kessler formed and bankrolled the Citizens Against Payday Loans PAC, which ran ads attacking Sheridan for weakening a payday loan regulation bill while dating an industry lobbyist.

Where did Sheridan finish in Tuesday's 15th District three-way primary? Third.

-- Republicans inflated Hulsey's 17 percent vote total.

Republicans who didn't live in the 6th Congressional District, or in Senate District 21 (former Sen. Van Wanggaard beat Brian Steitz), in Waukesha County (six-way GOP primary in 87th Assembly District), or in counties with hard-fought primaries for sheriff, had little reason to vote in the GOP primary.

So some of them voted in the Democratic primary for governor for state Rep. Brett Hulsey of Madison. That was especially true for Milwaukee County Republicans who voted in the Democratic primary between Sheriff David Clarke and challenger Chris Moews.

Republicans wanted to inflate Hulsey's vote total to try and send a message that a surprising number of Democrats were unhappy with Burke.

Numbers that support this: Only 3 percent of Democrats at the state convention responding to a wispolitics.com poll supported Hulsey. And that's the same level of support Hulsey recorded in May's Marquette University Law School poll.

-- “'11th Commandment?' What's that?”

Before he was elected president, Ronald Reagan made this phrase famous: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.

Apparently, two Republican legislators in the primary for the 6th Congressional District's open seat—state Sen. Glenn Grothman and Rep. Duey Stroebel—never heard of that rule because they took turns carving up each other—and Sen. Joe Liebham.

One reason for the 11th Commandment rule is the fear that, when Republicans attack each other, it surfaces issues that a Democratic candidate may exploit.

-- Freshest political face: Julian Bradley, a 33-year-old African-American from La Crosse, is the Republican candidate for secretary of state. He'll challenge 74-year-old Democrat Doug La Follette, who has been secretary of state for a total of 36 years.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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