There's an old saying in politics that "you can't beat somebody with nobody."
There's no question that, like him or not, Scott Walker is somebody. And right now Wisconsin Democrats have nobody to take him on.
With the state Democratic convention coming up this weekend, maybe someone will emerge. Or maybe not. The conventional (pun intended) wisdom has been that Walker is unbeatable and the party has a weak slate of potential candidates.
I have pretty much believed those two things myself. But after giving it some reflection, I'm not sure that either assumption is at all true.
First, is Walker really unbeatable? Consider two numbers: 50 and 44. The governor's approval ratings are weak for an incumbent at barely half of all likely voters, and his performance on job creation, the centerpiece of his promises, has been dismal. Our state ranks 44th in job growth.
Walker probably appears strong despite those numbers because he easily won his recall election and because he will have more money than God. But the recall result can at least be partially explained by voters' reluctance to remove a governor from office before he completed his term over policy differences as opposed to criminal wrong-doing. And while money matters in politics, liberals often seem to think it matters more than it really does. Sure, Walker and groups supporting him will easily outspend forces behind his challenger, but a Democrat with enough money to make the case on jobs has a chance.
And as for the Democratic bench, maybe it's not as thin as we think. In alphabetical order, here's a rundown of some potential candidates.
Peter Barca: The Assembly Democratic leader was the hero of the Act 10 fight, standing up to Republicans who slammed through the legislation while breaking their own procedural rules. A good orator, he could effectively make the case against another four years for Walker.
Kevin Conroy: When I mention him even among informed politicos I often get a blank stare, but he could be the Dems' best shot. A lawyer and serial entrepreneur at the University Research Park, Conroy can run as a business guy who understands how to create jobs in the new economy, making him a great contrast to Walker. Also, since he's never held office, there's no record for Walker to bang him over the head with. And the lack of name recognition is no great hurdle as he might be able to partially finance his own campaign.
Cory Mason: The Racine Democrat has emerged as the most prominent and articulate opposition spokesperson against Walker's budget. As one of only four Democrats on the sixteen-member Joint Finance Committee, Mason has been carrying the ball on the Democratic arguments and doing it very well. He's not well-known, but he is beloved among liberals. For Democrats who want a candidate who will take it to Walker, Mason would be a good choice.
Mahlon Mitchell: The Dems' Lieutenant Governor candidate in the recall, Mitchell already has some statewide name recognition. The firefighters' union president made a name for himself as a fiery speaker at the anti-Act 10 rallies on the Capitol Square. Like Conroy he lacks experience as an elected official, but that also comes with the advantage of having no record to attack.
Tom Nelson: The former legislator and Outagamie County Executive can make inroads into the vote rich Fox River Valley, which usually lines up reliably behind Republicans. And any Democrat has a built-in advantage in Madison and Milwaukee no matter where they're from. Nelson is young and energetic. He'd work like a maniac.
Joe Parisi. Who doesn't like Joe? Well, a few fringe characters on the far, far left of Madison politics don't like him, but that actually would help in a statewide race because it would make him look more moderate. Otherwise, the Dane County Executive is very popular in his home county and he has the kind of measured, easy-going personality that won't scare people outside the Madison area.
So, there's no reason to lose hope. Walker is more vulnerable than you might think, and the list of potential challengers is stronger than you might guess.