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Democrats get month to stand and deliver

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Steven Walters
April 9, 2012

On May 8—four weeks from Tuesday—Democrats will pick their candidate to run against Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the June 5 recall election.


Both one-month campaigns—the run-up to the May 8 Democratic primary and then the June 5 recall election—may be the most compressed major election cycles in Wisconsin history.


But then Wisconsin politics have been making history since Feb. 11, 2011, when Walker proposed all but eliminating collective bargaining for most public employees. Those changes became law, but they prompted the first recall elections for a governor and lieutenant governor, and recall elections for 13 of the 33 state senators who took office in January 2011.


The four-way scramble to be the Democratic nominee will be settled first. Democrats have these candidates to choose from May 8: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, and Secretary of State Doug La Follette.


Several veteran Democrats say that primary will be unlike any other and list these factors to watch:


Who “movement” likes: Falk partnered early with unions and other organizers of the effort that collected 900,000 signatures on petitions to recall Walker. In front of TV news crews, she symbolically walked from the office of recall organizers to the Government Accountability Board, which verified the signatures and certified both the May 8 and June 5 elections.

One veteran Milwaukee-area Democrat said last week he had already received two direct mail appeals for Falk—mailings he said made it clear her Super PAC, Wisconsin for Falk, was the first to get a command of the names and addresses of those who signed Walker recall petitions.


Those direct-mail appeals feature Falk’s picture, pictures of Capitol protests and say of Falk, “Our movement—Our candidate.”


Having announced she would run Jan. 18, hours after the recall petitions were filed, Falk’s campaign had a six-week organizational jump on Barrett, who announced his campaign March 30. Vinehout announced her campaign Feb. 8; La Follette, March 28.


Name ID: Polls have repeatedly found that Barrett is the best-known Democrat, largely because he lost to Walker only 17 months ago. Falk’s last statewide campaigns were 2006, when she lost to Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, and 2002, when she lost the Democratic nomination for governor to former Gov. Jim Doyle and Barrett.

In a short primary, being best known could favor Barrett. But Falk told reporters her own statewide name ID “jumped by 20 points” after a series of statewide rallies she led before Barrett joined the race.


Role of unions: Public-employee unions are doing all they can to help Falk win the May 8 primary. She is the only Democrat who has promised to veto any 2013-15 budget passed by the Legislature that does not fully restore collective bargaining laws that Walker got repealed.

But Falk’s promise could end up making her look like a union “stooge,” observed one former Democratic lawmaker who remains a power broker.


In a news conference outside the Capitol last week, Barrett and two Democratic senators who endorsed him, Jon Erpenbach of Waunakee and Tim Cullen of Janesville, said a few union leaders dictated the Falk endorsement but many rank-and-file union members will vote for the Milwaukee mayor May 8.


Out-state vote: In two major statewide Democratic primaries with no incumbent (the 2002 primary for governor and the 1988 primary for the U.S. Senate), 60 percent of the votes came from outside Milwaukee and Dane counties, the two traditional Democratic strongholds.

That means if Barrett can split Falk’s support in Dane County and union members hold down Barrett’s Milwaukee County vote total, the Democratic candidate against Walker could be the one best organized elsewhere.


Excluding Milwaukee and Dane counties, the most votes in the 2002 primary for governor came from these 10 counties: Waukesha, Racine, Rock, Brown, Kenosha, Marathon, Outagamie, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and La Crosse.


That’s why Vinehout told reporters she was encouraged when she got a standing-room-only crowd at a recent meeting of Waukesha County Democrats.


Vinehout said coming from rural western Wisconsin helps her because it’s the region “most difficult to organize” for Democrats but “the areas we have to win if we’re going to beat Scott Walker.”


Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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