Vinehout or Soglin for Governor??

Following the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention, two potential candidates for governor are gaining increasing notice as the party struggles to find a challenger to face Gov. Walker next year.

One is an outstate Democrat popular among the progressive grassroots who might have an incentive to leave the legislature, and the other is a Madison socialist stalwart who, while a longshot and already being dismissed, might be a dark horse.

State Senator Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, is the Democrats’ preference, according to WisPolitics.com:

More than a third of Democratic Party of Wisconsin conventioneers voting in a WisPolitics.com straw poll favored state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout for the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nomination.

Vinehout, of Alma, was favored by 184, or 38 percent, of the 489 delegates, alternates and registered guests who voted in the straw poll. State Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire, was backed by 61, or 13 percent.

Bob Harlow, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California last year, is the only announced Democratic candidate for governor. He received less than 1 percent of the vote.

Vinehout also won the WisPolitics.com straw poll at the 2015 convention. The party blocked WisPolitics.com’s efforts to conduct a straw poll at last year’s event.

Vinehout, in her third term as a state senator from western Wisconsin, was weighing a 2014 bid for governor when she was involved in a car crash and decided against a run as she recovered from her injuries. She also sought the party’s nomination in the 2012 recall attempt of Gov. Scott Walker, finishing a distant third in the Democratic primary with 4 percent of the vote.

One-third is a pretty convincing number for a straw poll, especially considering that Bob Harlow, the only declared Democrat for governor so far, got just one percent. Harlow is a 25-year-old who ran for Congress last year – in California.

If she’s taking all the governor talk seriously – and there’s every reason to think she is considering she has already sought the Dem nomination once –  Vinehout has a tough decision to make. Her seat is up again in 2018, so if she runs for re-election, she will be gambling that it won’t be another good year for Republicans.

If 2018 looks anything like 2016, Vinehout could lose re-election.

But if she runs for governor, despite her pluses, she will be walking into a bandsaw – the well-funded, well-oiled, experienced Walker re-election machine.

Why should she be an appealing candidate for the Dems to rally behind? She’s popular among the progressive grassroots – not just in Madison, but statewide. Hailing from Alma, she’s from a rural district along the Mississippi in western Wisconsin, which would immediately render any attack against her as being a “Madison liberal” useless.

She’s possibly the one Democrat from outside the Madison-Milwaukee stretch who stands a chance (Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson recently made a fool out of himself by trying to confront Gov. Walker in a phony, staged stunt where he crashed one of the governor’s press conferences. Having lost in a landslide to Mike Gallagher for Congress in a historically swing district, it’s a good bet that any statewide ambitions he might’ve had are toast).

Vinehout also has a folksy, down-to-earth style and likes to run a grassroots-driven campaign. As is the longstanding tradition of campaigning in that part of the state, she’s been successful because the people have met her and see her as one of them. That would be a problem if the Democrats nominate another standard liberal from a major market.

That said, Vinehout’s hold on her seat is potentially tenuous. In 2014, she held on against Republican Mel Pittman with just 52.5 percent. That’s typically “safe enough,” but Pittman – a very nice guy in my experience – just wasn’t exactly the most dynamic challenger imaginable. Her district, Senate District 31, is also trending Republican. After her near scrape with Pittman, the 31st became one of 710 state legislative districts that swung from Obama to Trump in 2016.

Also, the only incumbent Democratic Assemblyman to lose his seat in 2016 was Chris Danou. His former Assembly district, now represented by Republican Treig Pronschinske, makes up a geographically significant chunk of Vinehout’s district.

While Vinehout would have to hope for a good year for Democrats if she runs for re-election, and might have solid statewide appeal even if 2018 isn’t a wave year for Democrats, another candidate floating his potential candidacy would have to ride a wave – and might just have the socialist street cred to fire up the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin – a socialist septuagenarian (age 72) who pours himself into the mold of Bernie Sanders – is also now considering running. Soglin, who has a J.D. from UW-Madison, has been the mayor of Wisconsin’s most liberal city on-and-off for decades. Per the Wisconsin State Journal:

A longtime stalwart of Madison’s political scene, Soglin, 72, got his start in activism in the civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the 1960s. He first was elected to office as a city councilman in 1968.

Since then Soglin has served three stints as Madison mayor: from 1973–79, 1989-97 and again from 2011 to the present. He was re-elected in 2015 and his current term ends in 2019.

If he were the Dem nominee, Soglin could complete a Democratic trifecta of Madison attorneys running for statewide office. Josh Kaul, son of former attorney general Peg Lautenschlager and a Madison lawyer, is running for AG against Brad Schimel. Tim Burns, another Madison lawyer, is running for state Supreme Court against conservative justice Michael Gableman.

The solution to Dem woes in statewide elections is often said to be recruiting a progressive candidate from outstate – like Vinehout – instead of clinging to creatures of liberal enclaves – the epitome of which is Soglin.

Walker and other Republicans have said the Democrats’ nominating Soglin, who they would certainly write off as a far-left Madison radical, would be a godsend. But Soglin might be onto something when he cites Sanders’ dominating performance in Wisconsin in the Democratic primary as a reason he’s looking at a run.

While it’s certainly difficult to imagine Soglin defeating Walker under any normal scenario, he could pose a real threat under certain conditions:

  • A bad midterm cycle for the party in unified control both in Wisconsin and Washington (the GOP), as is often the case.
  • A candidate who can unite the far-left (a la Sanders) and drive turnout in liberal bastions like, eh hem, Madison.
  • Continued turmoil and squabbling among Republicans in Madison.

Add to that a dark horse candidate who is clearly not taken seriously, a demoralized and possibly sleepy, complacent conservative base, and a fired up left-wing base, and it’s not completely impossible to envision a way for a candidate like Soglin to win, especially if the zeitgeist swings to the left in 2018.

If I were Republicans, I wouldn’t be dismissing any candidate – nor would I be broadcasting to the base that “we got this” – no matter who the Democrats nominate.

Update: To assume Paul Soglin would have the Madison progressive vote on lock is evidently off the mark. I’ve heard from several people much more familiar with City of Madison politics than myself that Soglin is hardly a hero among the left in the state’s capital, despite having been elected the city’s mayor three times over the decades.

That makes any quest by Soglin to gain the Dems’ nomination a bit more quixotic.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.
  • Joanne Brown

    I am supporting Kathleen, primarily because he progressivism arises from a deep interest in making politics work for people rather than for funders of political races. She appeals to people outstate as well as to those within our small unreal reality here in Madison, because she is interested in making the political world work for everyone.

  • Benjamin

    Any commentator who thinks that Soglin, a mayor who has resisted grassroots efforts to move forward in housing and educational equity in Madison, would fire up the progressive base, is severely out of touch.

  • Maureen O’Leary

    Wow! I don’t know much about Tom Nelson, but that depiction seems totally off base given the video we have seen.

    I think Kathleen is a smart, conscientious, down to earth and honest woman who would take our state in the right direction.