Monday, August 17, 2009

Political Shake-Up in Wisconsin

Today WALYA reports on local politics from Wisconsin.

Today Gov. Jim Doyle (D-WI) announced he will not be seeking a third term for the state’s highest office. When news broke of his decision over the weekend it caught many in the media by surprise.

Last month, we commented on how state Democratic incumbents across the country were at risk in 2010. Doyle’s own approval rating at the time was 43%, and not long after we finished the post, another poll revealed his approval had dropped to about 34% - with 60% of voters disapproving of his performance.

Of course, Doyle has had a fairly successful second term and he made a point of it in his announcement today, listing a wide range of successes over the past year and a half. But with the impossible predicament of this year’s budget crisis - a result of revenue shortfalls attributable to the recession - no decisions he made were going to be popular.

Now, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on the scramble for the governor’s seat:

With his decision - 15 months before the 2010 general election and lacking an heir apparent - Doyle has left potential successors on both sides enough time to run a competitive race and an open field for Democratic candidates.

Much will depend on who decides to jump in to the race for governor.

"There's no clear (Democratic) front-runner, certainly," said Joe Heim, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist.

The obvious speculations for the Democratic ticket have been on Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

The liberal Badger State blog,, gives their thoughts on such candidacies:

Lieutenant Governor Barb Lawton – There’s absolutely no doubt Lt. Gov. Lawton will run to succeed Gov. Doyle. According to campaign finance documents, Lt. Gov. Lawton ended the last reporting period with $50,904.18 case on hand, and once Gov. Doyle formally announces he’s not running, you can expect to see Lt. Gov. Lawton’s fundraising kick into overdrive. Lawton’s weaknesses – as I see them – are the fact that she can be tied to the Doyle administration, and as such she’ll likely face criticism for some of Gov. Doyle’s more unpopular moves as Governor. What’s more, Lawton hasn’t proven she can shine running a campaign of her own, so it will be interesting to see how she does when her campaign isn’t tied to Gov. Doyle’s.

Representative Ron Kind – Though not a full-fledged “Blue Dog” Democrat, Rep. Kind is definitely a centrist Democrat, a fact that could aid him in the parts of Wisconsin that aren’t Milwaukee or Madison. However, I’m not sure how well known Rep. Kind is in the parts of the state that don’t include his Congressional district, and so he’d have to overcome that lack of name recognition in comparison to the other Democratic challengers.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – Mayor Barrett ran for governor in 2002, finishing second to then-Attorney General Jim Doyle in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, and I wouldn’t be at all shocked to see Barrett throw his name into the ring for 2010. Barrett was reelected Mayor of Milwaukee in 2008 by the largest margin in 40+ years, and during his time as Milwaukee’s Mayor he’s shown he’s a capable administrator/”chief executive.”

Another potential candidate that has gotten a good deal of attention since Doyle’s intentions were leaked is Dane County (Madison) Executive Kathleen Falk, who ran against Doyle in that 2002 primary and was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Attorney General in 2006.

Blogger “Zack W” says he wouldn’t be surprised if Falk ran again, but her loss in the “very winnable” AG race didn’t inspire confidence.

A few other names we’ve heard thrown out there are State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) and even Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson (D-Kaukauna).

Of course, none of these politicians have said whether or not they will run, but chances are there will be a very competitive Democratic primary.

And on the GOP side, there was already a very competitive primary. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker - while probably in the lead - faces a challenge from former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann (R-WI) and the politically unknown Appleton businessman Mark Todd.

But this will be the first time a sitting Wisconsin governor wasn’t up for re-election in 28 years, and three Republican challengers for the seat will probably not be all we see come September 2010.

Now three more Republican names have been thrown into the mix. Two of them have confirmed that they’re considering: lobbyist Bill McCoshen and former 4-term Governor Tommy Thompson, who left in 2001 to become Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services and later a presidential candidate in 2008. Thompson has also been speculated as a possible challenger to U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) who is up for re-election next year.

And depending on who does run, it will create a ripple effect (like the one we’ve seen in Illinois) for other Wisconsin races.

If Kind runs, for example, his rural Wisconsin seat will become extremely competitive. He was already being challenged by State Sen. Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse) for a seat that could easily go red in 2010 without an incumbent in the race. Depending on what candidates the Democrats can produce out there (no names have yet been mentioned) it could turn into Wisconsin’s ugliest battle next year.

Similar things could happen if or when Lawton, Erpenbach, Barrett, or any other Republicans get into the race for governor. Several replacement candidates have - no doubt - already considered the ripple effect possibilities.

It will also be interesting to watch what kind of message the Democratic candidates use to try to hold on to the seat. The Journal Sentinel seems to think that Lawton will try to engage her supporters in the progressive wing of the party while distancing herself from Doyle, and that Kind will use his moderate legislative history to bring in votes from rural areas (presumably). In other words, they will try to run on a “change” basis despite the fact that their party has been in charge.

Or, they might try to build on the successes Democrats have had in Wisconsin lately - with the Great Lakes Compact, BadgerCare expansion, etc. - and hope that they can take credit for improvements in the local economy.

The Republicans will also have to rethink their message (although Walker is telling the press otherwise) because they won’t have a sitting-incumbent to attack. And depending how what kind of improvements happen locally, primary fighting could become intense on both sides.

Either way, Doyle’s decision is going to make Wisconsin a premier battleground in 2010.

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