Democratic Party elections are usually internal affairs, but this year's ballot is generating an unusual amount of interest, particularly among critics who blame party leaders for the brutal electoral defeats sustained in recent years by Wisconsin Democrats. Since 2009, Democrats lost control of both houses of the state Legislature and the governor's office; failed to oust Gov. Scott Walker in an expensive and exhausting recall election; and were unable to unseat two Republican-backed incumbents on the state Supreme Court.
Tate was first elected chair in 2009 and has never had a challenger. The elections will take place at the party's state convention in Oconomowoc on June 7-8.
"I can't comprehend why anybody would support Mike's candidacy when he has that record," adds Kallas, the vice chair of the Green Lake County Democrats. Kallas has served on town and county boards, but lost one bid for state Assembly and two for Congress.
Tate, in fact, has widespread support among state Democratic leaders, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin; U.S. Reps. Ron Kind, Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore; former Gov. Jim Doyle; state Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson; former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold; Dane County Executive Joe Parisi; and Dane County Democratic Party Chair Mike Basford.
In a profile of Tate that ran Tuesday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Doyle lauded his leadership talent.
"He is good and has gotten a lot better," Doyle said. "I've been able to watch it. He has just grown, grown from being a young Democrat hustling around, doing the smaller but important jobs. Now he has really understood what modern politics is. He has understood the media side, the consultant and polling side of it, the money-raising side of it and the really focused data politics.
"He has really been able to bring all that together, and he has become a very good leader of people," Doyle added.
'A nice excuse'
Kallas faults Tate and other party leaders for not doing enough to support Democrats who are willing to challenge Republicans even in deep red country. And he says he does not buy the argument that the recent redistricting orchestrated by Republicans has made it nearly impossible for Democrats to win in some districts.
"It's a nice excuse," says Kallas.
He points to Melissa Sorenson, who challenged incumbent Republican Joan Ballweg in Assembly District 41, which includes Kallas' hometown of Princeton. Kallas thinks Sorenson could have won if she had received more support from the party. Sorenson got 42% of the vote to Ballweg's 58%.
"The party picks and chooses what districts are in play instead of supporting all Democrats," he says. "I think that is a failed strategy and will continue to fail in the future."
Kallas says that as chair he would travel extensively to meet all candidates and offer them support. "We have a lot of qualified Dems out there who won't run because they think they'll be stood up by the party."
Tate says he would not respond directly to Kallas' charges.
But he offers that Kallas does not have a "good understanding of the work the party has done over the last four years and the work the party is doing now in every corner of the state."
Tate says the party has used "both the successes and challenges we faced to get better and not be bitter about the losses."
He argues that the party has supported Democrats "regardless of how tough a seat they have." Tate points to the challenge waged by West Bend teacher Tanya Lohr against Sen. Glenn Grothman, a conservative Republican who serves in one of the most conservative districts in the state.
"We invested heavily in that race and will continue to invest in places where Dems are running great campaigns," he says.
But Tate says the party won't support candidates who have not put together a strong campaign themselves.
"We have to be strategic and smart especially in the redistricting era."
A new strategy
Tate says he has faith in the party's new 72-county strategy (PDF). Launched at the start of the year, he says it has a "hard-core focus on organizing at the ward level around the state with the heavy emphasis in districts where President Barack Obama did well or Tammy Baldwin did well."
Obama and Baldwin's victory in November 2012 were two bright spots for the state Democratic Party in the midst of the recent statewide losses.
Tate says that by Jan. 1, there will be 1,200 ward captains in place around the state. The captains will be responsible for knowing what it would take for Democratic victories in their respective wards and for identifying voters to make those wins possible.
Tate says he thinks the Democrats could take back the state Senate in 2014 and bump Walker off, too. And he brushes off criticism from Kallas and others who are increasingly anxious that no Democratic gubernatorial contenders have yet emerged.
"Why give Walker an extra year to run down the good name of whoever emerges from the pack? I feel strongly we will mount a strong campaign against Walker, and one of the reasons is that we will not give him months to attack with his millions of dollars."
Of the remaining four party posts - including vice chair, secretary and treasurer - only second vice chair is a contested race.
Jamie Shiner says she is running for the office to bring the factions of the party together. "I want to be a uniter," she says. "A house divided cannot stand. It's the same with a political party."
Shiner sees the split as a geographical one. "It's pro-Madison and anti-Madison."
She says she doesn't want to lay blame and doesn't feel any current officers have "done anything that terrible to be booted for."
Shiner, who worked as an operating engineer before injuring her back in a fall from a crane, moved to Green Bay in 2005, the same year she got divorced and transitioned to living her life as a woman. Last year she was the first out transgender delegate elected in Wisconsin to attend the Democratic Party national convention in Charlotte, N.C. She would make history again for the same reason if elected vice chair of the state party.
Shiner got involved in Wisconsin politics during the 2006 fight against the constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions and has been active ever since.
She's the second vice chair of the Brown County Democratic Party and vice chair of the state party's LGBT caucus.
Shiner's opponent, Jeff Christensen, recently moved to Madison from Waukesha, where he's lived since 2006. He got involved in politics there after voting for the first time and seeing little competition from Democrats.
"I looked at the ballot and said, 'Oh my God! I have to help these people.'"
A communications professional, Christensen became chair of the Waukesha County Democratic Party in 2009. He was also party chair of the 5th Congressional District and a member of the party's executive and budget committees. Working on these committees, he says, allowed him to "see the operations of the party like never before."
Christensen says Shiner is a "great Democrat" who would also serve the party well. But he says he brings more experience to the table.
"To me it's a resume issue and who's going to bring the most value pushing the party forward."