When political advisors sit around crafting a candidate's message, one question is primary: What is the candidate's "story"? That is, what tightly woven narrative around a candidate's background and political agenda will most resonate with voters?
The YouTube video announcing Mary Burke's entry into the race as the first Democratic challenger to Gov. Scott Walker leaves no question about her campaign story: Burke will be pitched to voters as the Trek Bicycle executive who helped turn her family's homegrown Wisconsin business into a global concern. Because of that experience, she is the candidate who can walk the talk and cure the state's ailing economy.
"At Trek I led strategic planning for nine years," Burke said in the video released early Monday morning. "And it was my job to open up new global markets. Today we've grown to almost 1,000 employees right here in Wisconsin. I'm proud of that, but I also know there are small businesses all over our state who have everything it takes to dream just as big. That's why, when you look at states like Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio, you wonder, 'what the heck's going on?' Because Wisconsin ranks 45th out of 50 states in projected job growth, sixth from the bottom. I'm running for governor because we can do better than that."
Burke does mention her tenure as commerce secretary under former Gov. Jim Doyle, noting that on her watch the agency created "84,000 more Wisconsin jobs than we have today." But that is presented as a secondary storyline, and for good reason. It is the more than two years she spent in Doyle's cabinet that makes her perhaps most vulnerable to Republican partisans who are pushing Walker's storyline -- that he rescued the state from the damage wrought by his Democratic predecessors through such radical reforms as Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
"Madison Millionaire Mary Burke Enters Governor's Race; Handpicked Candidate Helped Create Mess Fixed by Walker," reads the headline of the news release from the Republican Party of Wisconsin in reaction to Burke's announcement.
“A vote for Mary Burke is a vote to take Wisconsin backward," said Joe Fadness, executive director of the state GOP party. "Burke was part of the team that left Wisconsin with a $3.6 billion budget deficit, big tax hikes and massive job loss -- a mess that was fixed by Governor Scott Walker."
Michael Wagner, a UW-Madison journalism professor and expert on political communication, says recent polls have shown that voters see the state lagging in job creation. "So it's not surprising that [Burke is] focusing on her business experience and ability to create jobs," says Wagner. "I do think Democrats believe their best argument to make is that the governor has fallen short on his jobs promises."
Walker had pledged to create 250,000 new jobs by the end of next year, but is still almost 100,000 jobs short of that goal.
In her video, Burke said "real changes" have to be made in state government, where partisan politics have diverted attention from important policy matters. "It's pulling our state apart and our economy down," she said.
Wagner says Burke can make a credible case for being able to find middle ground.
"Being a Democrat but having a commerce background suggests she is comfortable with liberals and conservatives," he says.
Rumors have circulated for months that Burke, who was elected to the Madison school board in 2012 and has in recent years become a major philanthropist, would challenge Walker. Her decision to announce her candidacy through a YouTube video, rather than at a news conference or big public event, is becoming an increasingly popular choice among candidates. It's an avenue that allows candidates -- and their handlers -- to present a carefully crafted message at the launch of the campaign. As Wagner notes, it eliminates any chance of "pesky reporters" asking candidates questions they'd prefer not to answer.
"It allows them total control over the message and also doesn’t require them to answer any questions," he says. "It's a way of controlling things people learn about."
Democracy is the loser, though, when candidates are not forced to defend themselves or answer questions from media and political opponents, Wagner adds.
The Internet, on the other hand, makes it easier now to research candidates' lives, past behavior and archived statements on positions -- all of which can come back to haunt them. But for the most part, says Wagner, it's getting harder for reporters to pin candidates down.
"I think it's getting harder to cover politics, at least when it comes to trying to engage with the candidate."
Watch Burke's launch video.