Democratic Candidates For Guv: Opportunities and Challenges

July 18 Update: Marquette University released a new poll today, which shows Tony Evers leading the crowded field with 31 percent support. Kathleen Vinehout and Mahlon Mitchell gained some ground, but the major finding of the poll is that more than 4o percent of Democratic voters are still undecided. The race is still wide open.

You might not know it because mainstream media coverage has been beyond awful, but on August 14th voters in the Democratic Party primary will choose their nominee for governor. Given that this is allegedly a “blue wave” year, any Democrat should be able to run a competitive race against incumbent Republican Scott Walker. No Democrat will be able to compete with Governor Walker in fundraising, but that might not matter as much given that Democratic voters and Independents who lean Democratic appear to be more energized this year.

Mr. Walker unquestionably goes into the November election as the solid favorite, but Democrats have many reasons to be hopeful: the governor’s approval rating is below fifty percent, the FoxConn deal does not poll as well as the governor would have hoped, Democrats have been performing well in red areas of the state in special elections, blue areas of the state will probably have a turnout in November close to what one would expect in a presidential election year, and after eight years of Walker moderate/independent voters simply may be ready for a change.

At some point during this year more than fifteen Democrats had announced an intention to run for governor. Not all of them submitted the amount of signatures necessary to get on the August 14 primary ballot, and a few dropped out after the most recent Marquette poll showed them near the bottom of the pack.We are now down to eight candidates. There are some real differences between them, but in general all oppose pretty much every major initiative of the Walker years, from Act 10 to FoxConn. At the end of this piece you will find links to each candidate’s campaign website on which you can find more specific information about where they stand on major issues.

Below is a profile of each in alphabetical order. For each candidate I will focus on the opportunities they have to do well in the primary and the challenges they face. At the end there will be links to campaign websites, information about voting, and a video of a recent debate featuring all the candidates.

Tony Evers 

State Superintendent of Public Schools Tony Evers started the campaign with more name recognition than all the other candidates.

Opportunities: As the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mr. Evers has already shown that he can win a statewide race (in 2017 he won 70 of the state’s 72 counties in his reelection bid). He enjoys the highest name recognition of any candidate, and benefits from the fact that large numbers of voters identify education as the most critical issue facing the state. Originally from Plymouth and having previously held education positions in central parts of the state, Evers can legitimately claim that his world view extends beyond Madison and Milwaukee. 

Challenges: Evers has so far acquitted himself well at campaign events and forums with other candidates, but he’s clearly not the most charismatic candidate in the race. If the Democrats need some kind of grassroots mobilization to get past Mr. Walker, it’s questionable if Mr. Evers can spark that kind of activism. Much of it will probably depend on how strongly the losing candidates get behind him.

Matt Flynn

Opportunities: Matt Flynn is a Milwaukee area attorney who served as Chair of the Democratic Party

A US Navy veteran, Flynn accused Democratic legislators who called on him to leave the race of “fragging.”

of Wisconsin during a time period (early 1980s) when they won the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. Over the years he’s helped many candidates get elected, and his grasp of the key issues facing the state is strong. Though the overwhelming majority of respondents in the Marquette poll reported not knowing enough about any of the candidates (thank you mainstream media), Flynn actually performed better than everyone except Evers, McCabe, and Soglin.

Challenges: Flynn’s campaign is being actively opposed by individuals and organizations claiming that he bullied victims while representing the Catholic church in priest sex abuse cases. At first Flynn did not take the opposition seriously, telling critics to “go jump in the lake.” More recently he has softened his tone, claiming he actually worked to get abusive priests removed and that critics of his performance don’t fully understand how the legal system works. One can only imagine the kind of negative campaign ads that pro-GOP interest groups will run on this issue should Flynn become the Democratic nominee. He really needs to address the issue more convincingly before the August primary.

Mike McCabe

Mike McCabe’s campaign brought a Blue Jean Nation float to the Oshkosh 4th of July parade.

Opportunities: The former Executive Director of the nonpartisan watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, McCabe’s run for governor is an extension of his “Blue Jean Nation” movement. The only candidate who is not really a Democrat, McCabe like Bernie Sanders is running to remake the Party as much as to win the governor’s office. With rural roots, McCabe can campaign comfortably in all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Because so many candidates will be splitting the statewide vote, there is a scenario in which the blue jean activists manage to pick up enough votes in each county to win a plurality.

Challenges: For Mike McCabe’s campaign to be maximally successful, his “blue jeans” followers really need to gain control of county Democratic parties. Some months ago I went to hear McCabe speak at a bar in downtown Oshkosh. The crowd was small but highly interested in his message. However, when I left I walked a few blocks and noticed that there were a good number of people in the Democratic Party headquarters who had not bothered to come hear McCabe. That’s not a good sign, along with the fact that Bernie Sanders has so far not enthusiastically responded to the campaign’s petition for an endorsement.

Full Disclosure: I have known Mike McCabe for many years and support his candidacy.

Mahlon Mitchell

Opportunities: The President of the Professional Fire Fighters in Wisconsin, Mitchell gained much

Students in “Introduction to Rhetoric and Public Advocacy” had the opportunity to interview Mahlon Mitchell.

statewide recognition when he ran for Lt. Governor in the 2012 recall election. There’s been much talk about the need for the Dems to connect with rural whites in the state, which is true but often neglects the fact that a bigger problem for Dems in 2016 was the failure to mobilize people of color in the way Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Mitchell might be the candidate best able to fire up urban voters without alienating rural. He also connects well with youth: I had students in my “Intro to Rhetoric and Public Advocacy” course at UW Oshkosh study the rhetoric of all the candidates, and the group that studied Mitchell ended up getting very fired up about his candidacy. The assignment did not require students to try to contact candidates, but the group assigned to Mitchell did reach out and he actually called them. They were impressed.

Challenges: Mitchell strikes me as a candidate who would run very well against Scott Walker in the November election, when voter turnout will be high. His problem in the August primary is that the voters that are a natural base for him–youth and people of color especially–do not typically turn out in high numbers in primary elections. He’s got substantial union support, but it remains to be seen if the unions can run an effective get out the vote operation for him.

Josh Pade

Josh Pade brings youthful energy to the race, but limited political experience and name recognition.

Opportunities: A corporate attorney, Josh Pade is a young candidate who communicates a sincere desire to shift Wisconsin in a progressive direction. In forums he has performed well against the other, more politically experienced candidates.

Challenges: When a candidate for statewide office has the problem of little name recognition, there really are only two solutions: (1) spark large-scale grassroots activism or (2) spend a personal fortune to run media ads across the state. So far it does not look like Pade can do either, at least not this year.

Kelda Helen Roys

Opportunities: A former member of the state assembly from the Madison area, Roys speaks

A campaign video featuring Kelda Roys nursing her baby went viral.

passionately about women’s and children’s issues. She gained much support at the Wisconsin Democratic Party Convention in Oshkosh, even winning the straw poll (the poll of course is not scientific but it does demonstrate at least some ability of a candidate to mobilize party activists.). At a time when young women are making major strides running for office across the country, this could actually be the best year for Roys to be running.

Challenges: One knock against the Wisconsin Democrats for at least the last 30 years is that they continue to nominate Madison or Milwaukee area liberals. Kelda Roys, for all her strengths, is perhaps too easily pegged as “just another Madison liberal.” Like all Madison/Milwaukee candidates in the race, she really needs to come up with a more visible, coherent strategy for connecting with the rural counties. She’s had some success at raising money, so maybe she will produce media ads that will reflect such a strategy.

Paul Soglin

Can 70-something Paul Soglin accomplish in the Democratic primary what 70-something Bernie Sanders was able to?

Opportunities: The legendary, long-time Mayor of Madison certainly knows how to govern. As mayor of a major city, he’s had to do almost everything we expect from a governor: propose and manage a budget, persuade a legislature to adopt his policy ideas, and be an enthusiastic cheerleader for the place he represents. Soglin has always had his detractors, but there’s no doubt that he will go down as one of the most impactful mayors in the history of Madison. Given that the August primary election probably will be a low voter turnout affair, Soglin’s built-in Madison base gives him somewhat of an edge–at least in Dane County (which typically has higher turnout than the rest of the state.).

Challenges: Can a 70-something mayor of liberal Madison really connect with voters outside Dane County? Soglin was apparently inspired by the example of Bernie Sanders, another 70-something liberal guy who managed to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. The problem Soglin has is the sheer number of candidates he’s running against. Even if his “supper club campaign” does succeed in connecting with rural voters, he’s still competing for those votes with other candidates who already have the connection. Finally, like Kelda Roys, Soglin is probably hurt by (what I think is a) widespread sentiment among Democrats in the state these days that they want to nominate someone who is not easily pegged as strictly a Madison or Milwaukee area liberal.

Kathleen Vinehout

Opportunities: A state senator from rural Alma, Kathleen Vinehout is probably the most policy

Kathleen Vinehout is a rare example of a policy wonk with the ability to connect with rural voters. Can she ride that rare quality to a victory in August?

wonkish candidate running. She’s regularly prepared alternative budgets, and has been known to leave audiences in awe with her knowledge of “how the system really works.” Of all the candidates, she would have the smallest learning curve, and be able to get right down to the business of governing the state. That she has been able to get elected in a red area of the state is not something to take lightly; she’s one of only a handful of the candidates who can _comfortably_ campaign in all 72 counties.

Challenges: Because there are multiple candidates making explicit appeals to rural voters, Vinehout has lost at least some of whatever advantage she could have had in those regions. At the same time, her Madison and/or Milwaukee base is also being challenged by multiple candidates from those areas. In order to win the primary, Vinehout really does need her most passionate supporters to work overtime to get the word out about her.

Can any of these eight candidates defeat Scott Walker? Sure, as long as (1) they reject the mindset that they have to try to compete with Scott Walker in fundraising. If the race becomes about money, Walker wins easily. (2) They campaign in ALL parts of the state on a positive, progressive platform capable of sparking grassroots enthusiasm across all demographics. (3) They reject the temptation to take Republican-lite positions on economic development, taxes, gun safety, and really all major issues facing the state. (4) They truly become the candidate of the 99 percent not just in word, but in deed.

Here are the websites for each candidate:

*Tony Evers For Governor (“What’s Best for Kids is Best for our State”)

*Matt Flynn For Governor (“It’s Time to Move Wisconsin Forward Again”)

*Mike McCabe For Governor (“Principle Over Party”)

*Mahlon Mitchell For Governor (“Fighting For a Better Wisconsin”)

*Josh Pade For Governor (“We Can Change Wisconsin”)

*Kelda Roys For Governor (“Restore Opportunity and Fairness to Wisconsin”)

*Paul Soglin For Governor(“Only one Democratic candidate for Governor has got what it takes to lift up Wisconsin, bring down Scott Walker, and stand up to Donald Trump”) 

*Kathleen Vinehout For Governor (“People First”)

For information on how to register to vote, go here.

To find a sample ballot for the August 14 primary, go here.

Watch the July 12, 2018 Candidates’ Debate hosted by Today’s TMJ4 and UW Milwaukee:


About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004. You can find more information about him at

1 Comment

  1. David Hayford
    David Hayford on

    Good job. Best analysis of the plethora of candidates that I have seen. I recently asked Mark Harris who the best candidate is. He replied: “It doesn’t matter who the best is. The important thing is who can beat Scott Walker.” I believe beating Walker is possible. But think it has to be a fresh face, bring positive ideas (Not “I’m not Scott Walker”) Not sure who can best do that, but do not think it is Evers or Soglin.

    Thanks again for a great article

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