The Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial primary is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2018. That distant date hasn’t stopped a flurry of Democrats from jumping in to challenge Gov. Scott Walker — but some insiders question whether any of them can actually beat the incumbent.
Nearly 11 months out, eight Democrats have already declared their candidacies — five of those are legitimate contenders, while three are fringe candidates with little chance of advancing to the general election. Still others, most notably Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and former Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Matt Flynn, are weighing a run and are expected to decide soon.
The Democrats certainly aren’t lacking for quantity of candidates, but it’s possible the right candidate has already passed the race by. Well-known national figures, such as U.S. Reps. Ron Kind and Mark Pocan, said early on they would not run. Former state Sen. Timothy Cullen declined as well, stating frankly that he didn’t think he could raise the amount of money it would take to compete with Walker’s fundraising power.
Is Walker bound for a third term, as many GOP backers and some experts claim? Here are the men and women — seasoned politicians and political newcomers — who think they’re the ideal candidate to buck forecasters’ predictions and oust the governor.
The declared candidates
Kathleen Vinehout: Vinehout, a seasoned state senator from rural western Wisconsin, is the most recent candidate to announce a run. She’s no stranger to gubernatorial races — she lost in the Democratic primary in the 2012 recall election and dropped out of the 2014 race due to an injury.
A 59-year-old dairy farmer and former college professor, Vinehout has served in the state Senate since 2006 and is seen by many as a progressive voice who could appeal to the left wing of the party, as well as to more traditional Democrats. There is reason to think she will be one of the leading contenders for the nomination, as she won the WisPolitics.com straw poll at the 2017 state Democratic convention with support from 38 percent of conventioneers.
However, critics on the left point out that Vinehout has a somewhat mixed record on social issues, including a murky history on reproductive rights and a controversial vote to allow off-duty and retired police officers to carry guns in schools.
If elected, she said she would aim to expand healthcare coverage throughout the state and implement free tuition at Wisconsin’s two-year and technical colleges.
Tony Evers: Evers, the recently re-elected state superintendent of education, is the only Democratic candidate on the ballot who has been elected to a statewide post. That may mean he has the best name recognition of any challenger on the ballot, although most of the candidates are relative unknowns.
Evers’ message and background in education may resonate with voters who are upset with Walker over state cuts to K-12 school funding throughout his tenure. He has long been critical of the governor on education, and since announcing his candidacy has gone after Walker on Foxconn, welfare and labor issues.
Evers, 65, also has the advantage of having lived and supervised school districts throughout the state. He has labor backing, including from the powerful teachers’ unions, and executive experience. He should be a leading contender for the Democratic nomination.
But like the rest of the Democrats, Evers has shown no sign of having the infrastructure to keep up with Walker’s fundraising prowess. In his recent bid for re-election, Evers raised roughly $440,000. In 2014, Walker spent $36 million.
Dana Wachs: Wachs, a 60-year-old state representative from Eau Claire, has focused his campaign on his history of fighting for the middle class and average Wisconsinites both in the state Legislature and as an attorney.
He said if elected governor, he would invest more money in the UW System, in addition to strengthening collective bargaining and raising the minimum wage.
Wachs is another candidate from outside the Madison or Milwaukee metropolitan areas, which many Democratic operatives see as a positive. The last three Democratic nominees for governor have been from the largest and most liberal areas of the state.
Wachs came in a distant second to Vinehout in WisPolitics.com’s straw poll at the 2017 state Democratic convention, earning 13 percent of the vote. He’s already earned some endorsements from elected officials far from his home district, which is a good sign.
Andy Gronik: Gronik has positioned himself as a political outsider with no prior experience holding public office. In an election with three better-known elected officials, this strategy could work to set Gronik apart — but it’s not clear he fits the mold or has the appeal to run a competitive campaign.
The 60-year-old Gronik has sought to contrast his record as the leader of a consulting firm with Walker’s, who has been running for office since he was in his early 20’s. Gronik has also highlighted his own medical issues — he has Crohn’s Disease — as a reason that quality healthcare is essential for Wisconsinites. With the Affordable Care Act constantly in the national news, this could be a good strategy.
But there are significant problems with Gronik’s candidacy. Most notably, his success as a businessman is currently very much in question, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently revealed that Gronik had been fired by his own father and sued by his former business partner for missing too much work.
Gronik has tried to defend his record, but for a candidate who already needed to drastically increase his name recognition in order to have a chance, this isn’t a positive sign.
Mike McCabe: McCabe is best known for running the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that seeks to limit the influence of special interests and money in politics, for 15 years. Like a few of his fellow Democrats, he has firmly positioned himself as a champion of the regular person — his campaign committee is even called “Commoners for Mike McCabe.”
McCabe’s record backs up his campaign strategy. After leaving the Democracy Campaign, McCabe founded Blue Jean Nation, a group with the sole purpose of electing regular people to office over entrenched political insiders. He is in favor of a higher minimum wage, repealing Act 10, greater access to healthcare, and a number of other progressive reforms.
McCabe is also seen by some as a more independent voice than other Democratic candidates. Though he is running on the Democratic line, he is a registered independent, which could help him win over moderate swing voters.
McCabe is lesser known in political circles than Vinehout, Wachs or Evers. He’ll have an uphill climb to convince the Democratic establishment that he is viable.
The potential candidates
Paul Soglin: For many Madison residents, Soglin is the most recognizable name on this list. The long-time Madison mayor has generally stayed out of statewide politics, but apparently had a change of heart earlier this year when he announced he was considering a run for governor. He still hasn’t made an official decision.
Soglin has made it clear he sees himself cast in the same mold as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and supporters see him that way as well. Not only does Soglin share Sanders’ general aesthetic and demeanor, but, much like the senator, he also falls to the left of most Democrats on many policy issues.
Soglin has said he thinks he can capitalize on Sanders’ success in Wisconsin. But critics say that while Soglin talks a big game about social progressivism, his actions haven’t matched his words — especially on the issue of homelessness. And furthermore, many statewide Democrats think nominating the mayor of Madison — seen by much of the state as “77 square miles surrounded by reality” — would effectively hand Walker the election.
Matt Flynn: Flynn is the former chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, although he is likely lesser known in the state than the former Packers’ quarterback who shares his name. Flynn is cozy with Democratic leaders in the state, but he will have work to do getting to know voters if he decides to enter the race.
Flynn is a successful Milwaukee attorney and a seasoned campaign veteran, having worked for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004. He has impressive credentials: a Yale graduate, Navy veteran, and jack of all trades — he is a novelist on top of his law career.
Flynn has flirted with a run against Walker but has not officially announced.
Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, firefighters union Chief Mahlon Mitchell, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ and businessman Kurt Kober are also potential candidates.
The fringe candidates
Bob Harlow, a young Wisconsin native who ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign in California in 2016, moved back to the state to run for governor. Michele Doolan describes herself as a “small town mom” looking to beat Walker as an outsider. Jeff Rumbaugh is a disability rights advocate who says he would bring “real compassion and serious change” to the state. None of the three likely have the name recognition, experience or fundraising infrastructure to compete for the Democratic nomination.