Kind for Governor? Here We Go Again.

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Rep. Ron Kind – whose gubernatorial ambitions, or lack thereof, Morning Martini has tracked for years – is once again stringing along his Democratic groupies when it comes to his interest in running for governor.

The congressman from La Crosse just told WPR he hasn’t ruled out running in 2018:

“I’ve been troubled, as many people have throughout the state, in regards to the direction of where we’ve gone as a state, the unnecessary division, pitting people against each other, dividing families,” Kind said. “We deserve better leadership, but no decision’s been made on my behalf.”

Like the star quarterback telling a half dozen ladies he might take them to the prom, Kind continues to tease Wisconsin Democrats desperate for a candidate strong enough to knock off Scott Walker.

Will he run? If he does, he has a lot of factors to weigh, including the increasing distance between himself and the mainstream of his own party, competing pressure to stay in his rightward-trending district, and the possibility of a damaging primary.

If he ran for governor, Kind could face a challenge from the left, a front on which he’s vulnerable for any number of reasons. For one, he’s been on the outs with labor interests in his district for some time, particularly because of his open-armed embrace of multilateral trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP. The erosion of support by the union left was also evidenced by his Bernie Sanders-inspired primary opponent in the 2016 election. At least one union actually endorsed his opponent, Myron Buchholtz. Superdelegate Kind was also hounded by a pro-Bernie gaggle at the Democratic National Convention for being too moderate on trade issues.

Still, 2016 was a hopscotch for Kind, who eventually trounced Buchholtz and strode onto a general election in which his oddly named opponent, “scattering,” barely amounted to a blip (translation from geek humor: he ran unopposed). However, the strain between Kind and labor remains. The strain between Kind and the newly empowered and proliferating far-left, for whom Kind is far too nuanced and rational, is also growing more pronounced as Sandersism takes hold within the new Democratic Party.

Ironically, Kind has long marketed himself as a leader in the “New Democrat” caucus, a group of middle-of-the-road Congressmen who, with the upheaval that’s dragged his party to the precipice of socialism, now appears to be a relic of the days of Clinton. The New Democrats should re-brand as “The Tattered Wreckage of a Dead Dream.”

As one of few remaining rural, flyover state Democrats still in Congress, he admitted to voting against Nancy Pelosi in recent House leadership elections, telling the Wisconsin State Journal that a new minority leader would be “a breath of fresh air.” In the same article, Kind was critical of Hillary Clinton. “She didn’t set foot in Wisconsin once after the primary. I knew that was going to be a problem,” he said.

After the results of the November elections hit, Kind no doubt started seeing the ground moving beneath him as his electorate’s gradual transformation became manifest – or at least the electorate is realizing how far left the Democratic Party has drifted away from New Deal populism.

Voters are changing their voting patterns accordingly.

When Kind was first elected in 1996, President Bill Clinton was reforming welfare and trumpeting that “the era of big government is over,” an apparent last gasp of the Democratic ideals of the Kennedy era. Such notions are thoroughly in the mainstream of Republican thinking today, but it’s utterly unthinkable rhetoric from a modern Democrat – except the likes of Jim Webb, whose moderate candidacy for president went over within the post-Obama Democratic ranks like ketchup on ice cream.

How much has the electorate changed in Wisconsin’s Third? In 2012, the first presidential election after redistricting made the district even more blue by removing parts of right-leaning St. Croix and adding parts of left-leaning Portage, Barack Obama won with 54.8 percent. In 2016, the same electorate voted for Donald J. Trump by 49.3 percent; Hillary Clinton won just 44.8 percent, about the same amount as Kind’s last Republican challenger, Tony Kurtz.

Kind endorsed Hillary and pledged his superdelegate vote for her.

In addition, the two state legislative seats in which an incumbent was defeated in 2016 (both Democrats) were in Kind’s district. Rep. Chris Danou lost to Republican Treig Pronschinske 52-48 and longtime Sen. Julie Lassa lost to Patrick Testin, who hadn’t held elected office before challenging Lassa. Lassa lost by 52.4 to 47.6 percent, losing every county in her senate district save one, Portage, the most liberal.

In the era of Trump, Kind is buoyed by a sort of Bermuda Triangle of liberal enclaves – the City of La Crosse (the rest of La Crosse County went for Trump), Portage County, and the City of Eau Claire.

The tectonic plates have shifted on the Democratic side of the ballot since 1996, too. Sanders obliterated Clinton in the Third District – the Democratic Socialist won the district with an astounding 61.3 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

Kind’s district might be increasingly vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean Kind himself is, too. Though the district’s voting patterns seem to be shifting Republican, especially in the rural areas bounded by the Bermuda Triangle, Kind is hardly the poster child for the “new left” that pawns off responsibility for Hillary Clinton’s abysmal candidacy on conspiracy theories of Russian hacking, fake news, or a nexus of corruption in James Comey’s office. He’s not likely to be seen flipping over cars, smashing windows, or throwing rotten fruit at controversial alt-right agitators. Perhaps most scary to the coastal elites that run his party, Ron Kind is pro-Second Amendment. It would be fair to assume he actually owns guns – AND USES THEM TO SHOOT ANIMALS!

No, Ron Kind is rather astutely in touch with his electorate, even though he’s become quite comfortable with accepting millions of dollars from special interests via his lofty perch as ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, a vaunted position that allows him to amass war chests of millions of dollars each election cycle, which he typically spends airing recycled TV ads depicting him throwing a football and watching the Packers. His image could be summed up in two words: Captain Wisconsin.

Captain Wisconsin is at no risk of losing in the near future; the 53-year-old has a job for life in Congress if he wants.

He also seems to be quite unambitious, at least when it comes to any aspirations for higher office. He passed up running for U.S. Senate in 2012 (presumably the Democrats preferred a cleared field while the flame thrower-wielding Republican candidates formed a circular firing squad and torched their own chances of taking the seat). He passed up a run for governor against Walker in 2014, leaving the Democrats with Mary Burke and her hairdo. He deferred to Russ Feingold for U.S. Senate in 2016, who shocked the world in his failure to take down Ron Johnson. He’s also passed up other leadership opportunities in the House.

Then, there’s the issue of the Democratic bench in Wisconsin, a topic we’ve clobbered for years on this website. It’s so thin that former state Sen. Tim Cullen, who was among those who famously took a vacation to Illinois in a failed attempt to stop Act 10, is actually considered a strong contender for 2018. Susan Happ – the failed attorney general candidate from 2014 – has been discussed. Jennifer Shilling, the Senate Minority Leader who came within 60 votes of losing her own seat in the state Senate in 2016, is still somehow being mentioned. Add to that the usual cast of yet-uncasted characters in the Mary Burke mold, people who can be mutated into featureless canvasses onto which any generic Democratic persona can be grafted, an approach that flopped like a wet waffle with Mary Burke.

Ron Kind For Governor would tickle the Democrats to no end. He is the Democratic bench in Wisconsin – and he’s perhaps the one Democrat with a very, very, very good shot at defeating Walker (that’s three verys more than anyone else). But there’s also the issue of time. Though he’s not old – at 53, he’s a puppy compared to 72-year-old Tim Cullen – the clock is nonetheless ticking. If he passes on 2018, he will be nearly 60 before his next shot at governor comes around, and that’s if Walker gets re-elected. (Kind will be 54 this year, 55 at the time of the 2018 election, and 59 at the 2022 election).

Any Democrat with the exception of Kind running against Walker would be an admission by that party that Walker is unstoppable – akin to their failure to put up even a token challenge to Annette Ziegler for Supreme Court.

Kind would have a unique appeal statewide to the vast sea of moderate, inconsistent, politically independent voters. Voters who lean left and those who lean right will both find something to like about his positions. He’s also extremely disciplined in his message, to the point of being the embodiment of the quintessential Ivy League plastic politician. Think Cam Brady, Will Ferrell’s parody of the entrenched, self-interested congressman in The Campaign.

But perhaps Kind’s greatest strength is the intangible reason why he’s so popular in the Third, anecdotally at least. (I’m qualified to peddle anecdotes about voters’ perceptions of Kind because I worked on Tony Kurtz’s 2014 campaign against him). People LIKE Ron Kind. They see him as a nice guy. Invariably, they think he has their interests in mind out in D.C., neverminding the coincidental nexus of his voting patterns and his vast list of PAC contributors. Were he to run for governor, he would need to translate that reputation, which he’s spent twenty years building in west-central Wisconsin, to the rest of the state.

Were he to run, he’d have to come up with something better than telling people he likes football and guns.

The Walker machine would face a formidable foe in Kind, but they’ve proven extremely effective at what they do, which is to win. How could they do that against Kind? Labeling him a “career politician” is a nonstarter – Walker is one, too. How about a “Washington insider?” That hasn’t hurt him in the past, despite his opponents’ best efforts. But perhaps a better strategy would be to use the populist upswell that manifested in the Sanders surge and Trump triumph against Kind. Introducing Ron Kind to both Trump and Sanders supporters as both a thoroughly embedded establishment insider, a vocal supporter of Obamacare (right) and even more unabashed proponent of anti-labor trade deals (left, labScreen Shot 2017-02-17 at 10.10.12 AMor) could throw a wet blanket on enthusiasm for a Kind candidacy during a potential primary.

Dampening enthusiasm among Democrats, especially the new breed of rabid ones who want to see a Socialist winter descend on the country, could be a winning strategy. Wisconsin as a whole overwhelmingly voted for Sanders (see the map). Meanwhile, shoring up traditional Republican and Trump Republican support for Walker…think “Working and Winning for Wisconsin”…would keep the Walker fires stoked and drive turnout.

There’s also the matter of the Tomah VA “Candyland” scandal, which will be used against any politician with even a Kevin Bacon degree of connection to the Tomah facility that was revealed to be doling out highly addictive opiate painkillers to veterans in unimaginable quantities, resulting in deaths and drug diversion. Far from being twice removed from Tomah, Kind has in fact represented the area for decades, and of all the state and federal politicians whose constituencies overlap in Tomah, Kind is most directly that facility’s overseer in Washington. He would have to answer for that in any high-profile race he undertakes.

Kind will no doubt be facing competing pressures – pressure from within Wisconsin to run for governor, and pressure from Washington to stay in Congress. Kind’s district is already being targeted by Republicans for 2018, one of 36 Democratic-held seats that Trump carried that are on that list. A group called American Action Network is already running ads hitting Kind for his support of Obamacare.

Even with a pittance of outside involvement and money, absent the influx of many, many millions of dollars, Kind is unlikely to be unseated in 2018. But, if he gives up the seat to run for governor, there’s a pretty good chance that a Republican would replace him given the makeup of the district, its history (moderate Republican Steve Gunderson represented the district before Kind) and, of course, the deep Republican bench in the district.

Possibly the top contender would be Republican Tony Kurtz, the 50-year-old veteran, former Apache helicopter pilot, and farmer who pulled nearly 44 percent against Kind in 2014 despite a massive cash disadvantage (although Kurtz outraised Kind among individual donors toward the end of the campaign). Kurtz fits the district well, is extremely popular among the Republican base, and is a superb retail campaigner who could win over Kind’s coalition of moderates and independents in a race without Kind on the ballot. Other possibilities are former state Senator Dan Kapanke, who came within a hair of knocking Kind off in 2010, Sue Lynch of La Crosse, the former president of the National Federation of Republican Women, and any number of Republican officeholders in the Third – Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green comes to mind, as does freshman state Senator Patrick Testin of Stevens Point.

To be sure, there are Democrats who could vie for the seat. State Rep. Steve Doyle of Onalaska, Sen. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, and state Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire are among them (Wachs has also been mentioned as another possible gubernatorial candidate). Wisconsin Rapids’ 28-year-old mayor, Zach Vruwink, has also been mentioned anecdotally as a potential future candidate.

But it’s time to return to reality. In all likelihood, Kind won’t be giving up his well-paying job-for-life in Congress anytime prior to the time he chooses to retire to a life of fishing, hunting, and watching the Packers from his barcalounger. It’s not likely that Kind will abandon the cushy enclaves of swanky soirees at Bullfeathers and the comfortable social circles of D.C. for a tumultuous – hellish – waltz into the Walker buzzsaw, only to take a five-figure pay cut for a job in which he’ll constantly be butting heads with an almost-certain long-term Republican majority in the state legislature.

He’d be crazy to do so. And if I’ve learned one thing about Ron Kind after being represented by him for 20 years and working on a campaign against him, he’s certainly not crazy.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s a communication specialist with experience in the private sector and on various campaigns. He's the communications director for the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. Commentary here is strictly his own.