David Michael Miller
As Democrats scour the state looking for potential candidates to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in 2018, I’ve heard a refrain repeated over and over: “Find someone who isn’t from Madison or Milwaukee.”
There’s good reason why Democrats would be simultaneously hopeful and anxious about the next election. Midterm elections almost always hurt the president’s party. Walker rode national Republican waves to victory in 2010 and 2014. Assuming Walker chooses to run for a third term, he’ll face a very different kind of election in 2018. With unified Republican government at the state and federal level, there’s no one for Walker to use as a scapegoat.
But even a national Democratic midterm wave wouldn’t make the gubernatorial race a lock. Walker is a nationally known figure who will have a huge fundraising advantage. While Walker wilted under the national spotlight during his brief presidential campaign, he’s an experienced and talented campaigner in Wisconsin.
Democrats are tired of losing, and many believe a rural candidate would have a better chance of winning. It makes sense on some level. The last two Democratic gubernatorial candidates were from Milwaukee and Madison. Spoiler alert, they both lost.
But Tom Barrett and Mary Burke had problems that extended far beyond their zip codes. They were decent but unspectacular candidates who ran during national Republican waves. Location became a nonfactor; Barrett and Burke would have gotten creamed even if they had been born and raised at Lambeau Field.
While it is indisputable that Democrats need to find candidates and issues that will make them competitive in rural Wisconsin again, they can’t magically generate rural appeal through a candidate who just happens to live in a rural part of the state. Rural voters aren’t looking for folksy pandering; they are looking for an affable, inspiring leader who talks about issues they care about. That’s more important than the candidate’s zip code. Bernie Sanders won support across rural parts of the state — ultimately winning more votes than any other Democratic or Republican candidate during Wisconsin’s presidential primary — thanks to a platform that authentically resonated with Wisconsinites, even if sounded like a Willy Street fever dream.
Don’t get me wrong; I think a gubernatorial contender from Eau Claire or the Fox Valley is a great idea, but a different geographic location alone doesn’t make for a good candidate. Selecting a nominee through triangulation is exactly how the party ended up with Mary Burke. She was a moderate business leader and a tremendous philanthropist. Many thought her lack of political experience would help her rise above the muck. She was an ideal candidate on paper — but we don’t elect resumes, we elect people. She occasionally came off as a neophyte against the more experienced Walker. Having faced no serious primary challengers, Burke was ill-prepared for a statewide race.
Additionally, a Democratic candidate needs to outperform Barrett and Burke in places beyond rural Wisconsin. Milwaukee County faced a huge dropoff in turnout between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. If that one county alone had turned out for Clinton in the numbers they turned out for Obama, Clinton would have carried the state.
Find a Democratic candidate who can fire up voters in rural Jackson County and urban Kenosha and you’ve found the next governor of Wisconsin. But that won’t be easy. With a thin bench, Democrats can’t afford to write off candidates from any part of the state. That includes small towns, mid-sized communities like La Crosse, as well as bigger urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee. Think of all the experienced leaders in Madison and Milwaukee — the vast majority of Democratic state legislators, city and county officials, successful entrepreneurs and heads of nonprofits. Some of them might be worth enduring some anti-urban political potshots.
The best way to find a great Democratic candidate is through a contested gubernatorial primary. I’d love to see three or more candidates crossing the state, meeting with voters from Kenosha to Superior. Let’s see if Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s message resonates with the rural voters at the Taylor County Fair. Let’s see if Rep. Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) can fire up the crowds in Milwaukee. Let’s see if the economic populism of Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) is enough to make pro-choice Madison overlook Vinehout’s previous pro-life stances. Let’s see if anyone other than former Sen. Tim Cullen wants to see Tim Cullen run for governor.
Every candidate has a hometown, but, through an open primary, Democrats might just find a candidate who feels at home in any town across Wisconsin.