Ranking the Dem Candidates For Governor

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Note:  The following column is PURE OPINION. If you don’t agree with me on who to vote for in the Democratic Party primary for governor, God bless you. Please vote on August 14, and remind your family and friends to do the same. –Tony Palmeri

I’m planning to vote in the Democratic Party primary on August 14. On my ballot there will be ten candidates: Andy Gronik, Matt Flynn, Tony Evers, Josh Pade, Mike McCabe, Mahlon Mitchell, Kelda Helen Roys, Paul Soglin, Kathleen Vinehout, and Dana Wachs. In a previous State of the State I profiled all the candidates except Gronik and Wachs, who had already withdrawn from the race by the time I wrote the profile. (Gronik has since endorsed Kelda Roys, and Wachs has endorsed Tony Evers).

Unfortunately we don’t allow ranked choice voting in Wisconsin, so I can only vote for one of these candidates. Ranked choice/instant runoff voting guarantees that the winner has to end up with more than 50 percent of the vote. Under the plurality, “first past the post” vote system, which is used in most states including Wisconsin, the winner merely needs the highest percentage of votes cast. That’s how Donald Trump, for example, was able to become the Republican nominee for President even though more Republicans voted against him than for him. So whomever wins the Democratic primary for governor will probably do it with less than 50 percent of the vote.

So what if we could rank our choices for Democratic candidates for governor in Wisconsin? Below are my rankings. I’ve tried to learn as much about the candidates as I can, which has been difficult in part because the election season journalism has been so mediocre. I have followed most of the candidates on social media, and watched a few candidate forums. Given all of that, here are my rankings:

Rank Choice #1:  Mike McCabe.  McCabe is the only candidate in the race who, like Bernie Sanders, really is not a Democrat. Over the years McCabe has written and spoken extensively about the legalized bribery in Wisconsin politics, and he’s called out leaders in both major parties for their complicity. I’ve cited his work numerous times in my own writing and speaking on behalf of reforming Wisconsin politics. If McCabe were to get the nomination, it would represent a major stride toward the vision he articulated in the reform text Blue Jeans in High Places.

Of all the candidates running, McCabe seems to understand most clearly that Wisconsin politics really is not Left v. Right as much as Bottom v. Top. With the bully pulpit that comes from being the Democratic party nominee for governor, he can give greater voice and vision to what we all should already know: that the interests of the older Trump voters in rural northern Wisconsin are the SAME as the young urban voters in Milwaukee and other urban areas of the state. Destroying the fiction that the people at-large are as divided as the pundits and spokespersons of the one-percent keep telling us would be a major accomplishment of a McCabe nomination. Destroying that fiction might also be the key to defeating Scott Walker in the fall.

Rank Choice #2: Mahlon Mitchell. If you take a look at the websites of each of the candidates, they are pretty much in agreement on the major issues facing our state. Most are running on center-left platforms calling for increased funding for public education, economic development that favors workers over CEO profits, expanding Medicaid access as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, restoring collective bargaining rights for public employees, criminal justice reform, and so on. When multiple candidates share so many positions on key issues, as a voter I ask myself the following questions: Who will be the most forceful, articulate advocate for his or her agenda? Who is most likely to work effectively with the legislature to get the agenda enacted? Whose campaign has some kind of meaningful symbolic value that can motivate activism before and after the election? 

The President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, Mitchell ran for Lt. Governor during the 2012 recall election. At the time I was impressed with his campaign, and like many Wisconsinites thought that he would have been a stronger candidate against Scott Walker than Tom Barrett. Mitchell is a forceful advocate and I think he has the political skills necessary to work with the legislature, but for me his nomination would carry great symbolic value. Wisconsin’s reputation for racial inequality is shameful, and while simply having an African-American in the governor’s office is not enough to change that, it would increase the likelihood that the impact of public policy choices on ALL residents of our state would get a fair hearing.

Rank Choice #3: Kathleen Vinehout. Senator Vinehout represents Wisconsin’s 31st District, much of which is rural. She is the candidate I’ve been most pleasantly surprised by in interviews, forums, and the overall manner in which she’s conducted her campaign. She strikes me as extremely KNOWLEDGEABLE and COMPETENT, two qualities that are unfortunately in very short supply these days in Madison and Washington. She and Mike McCabe (who like Vinehout has strong rural roots) are the only candidates who can campaign easily in rural parts of the state, something that has become steadily more difficult for Democrats since the 1980s.

Rank Choice #4: Tony Evers. Tony Evers has been the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Wisconsin since 2009. He’s won that office statewide three times, which has given him name recognition across the state. That’s one of the main reasons why Mr. Evers has been leading in the polls and one of the major reasons why establishment Democrats think he has the best chance to topple Mr. Walker in the fall.

I’ve always liked Tony Evers, and I believe he has been a strong voice for public education during the Walker years. And hey, how great would it be to have a governor named Tony? My major concern with him is that he’s been running what appears to be a cautious, centrist  campaign–perhaps calculating that the abundance of liberals/progressives in the race has created an opening for a “moderate.” That concerns me because, if you look at what’s been happening around the country and even in Wisconsin, caution+centrism+moderation does not appear to be a winning formula for Democrats. On the other hand, I do think that public education is THE major issue for Wisconsin voters this year, and Evers will be a very strong general election candidate IF the Wisconsin establishment media covers the race responsibly.

Rank Choice #5: Kelda Roys. A former member of the state assembly from Madison, Kelda Roys brings a youthful energy to the race. Some young local Democrats I have a great deal of respect for have been supporting her on social media. She’s also been endorsed by Emily’s List, the organization that promotes pro-choice women.

Roys ran for the 2nd congressional district seat in 2012, attacking the eventual winner Mark Pocan in ways that were widely perceived as negative. Pocan to this day seems at best neutral in his comments about her, though he has pledged to endorse if she does become the nominee.

I think all of the Democrats can beat Scott Walker, including Kelda Roys. She’s not higher in my ranking largely because in my judgement the other candidates can more effectively build the urban/rural coalition that will be needed to win in the fall.

Rank Choice #6: Paul Soglin. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin at times appears to be running more against Donald Trump than against Scott Walker or any of the primary candidates. I do appreciate his feistiness, and I have no doubt that a Walker v. Soglin match-up would be an epic battle between a Koch Brothers conservative and an old-fashioned liberal. It would be fun.

The fact that 2018 is probably a “blue wave” year helps all of the Democratic candidates, but Soglin strikes me as someone who will require the blue wave in order to win. It’s simply difficult for a big city mayor (think Tom Barrett) to gain traction in red counties of the state. So far in forums, interviews, and other campaign communications I have not seen enough evidence that Soglin has a compelling strategy to take those counties.

Rank Choice #7: Matt Flynn. Former leader of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, Flynn is running a television ad in the Fox Valley claiming that he will go to court to stop the FoxConn project. His aggressiveness on that topic would set up a stark contrast with Scott Walker on how best to stimulate economic development in the state.

Unfortunately Mr. Flynn’s missteps in handling criticisms of his performance as attorney for the Milwaukee archdiocese in priest abuse cases would make it very difficult to have any kind of meaningful debate with Walker. Flynn at first seemed blindsided by the criticisms, telling his critics to “jump in the lake.” When Democratic state representatives urged him to leave the primary race, he accused them of “fragging.” To me these responses have sounded condescending and completely insensitive to the victims of priest abuse. Given that there are so many other qualified candidates this year, there would have to be something especially unique and outstanding about Flynn in order to ignore the baggage he would bring to the fall race.

Rank Choice #8: Josh Pade. Corporate lawyer Jose Pade has not really provided any compelling rationale for why he should be supported over the other candidates. Early on in the campaign he tried to establish himself as the “outsider” candidate–as did Gronik and Wachs. Like those candidates, Pade simply failed to spark any enthusiasm for his campaign. I’m not seeing anything in his policy positions, debating style, or approach to campaigning that would provoke me to rank him above any of the other candidates.

The purpose of this column was only to tell you how I personally rank the Democratic candidates for governor. Please feel free to share your own rankings in the comments section.

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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.

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