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Citizen Dave: The case for a Democratic gubernatorial primary in Wisconsin

A story in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggests that Wisconsin Democratic Party power brokers want to avoid a primary for their nomination for governor.

Let me make an argument for why that is a really, really dumb idea.

But first some quick background. The apparent choice of insiders is current Madison school board member and former state Commerce Department Secretary and Trek Bike exec Mary Burke. I know Mary. I eagerly supported her for her school board seat and she won despite my endorsement. She is a great philanthropist who really cares (about kids especially) and has the business chops that contrast nicely with lifelong public official Scott Walker, who is failing badly in the job creation department.

Mary Burke would be a great candidate. That's not the issue. The question is about how to arrive at the best candidate to take on Governor Walker in 2014. Seems to me that choosing that candidate in a smoke free backroom is not it.

In a pure, bloodless strategic sense, sometimes primaries are good and sometimes they're not. In the case of Tammy Baldwin's race for U.S. Senate, she benefited from not having a primary while Tommy Thompson had to spend all his money and move so far right that he was off the planet to wrestle the Republican nomination. By the time Tommy had figured out what was hitting him, Baldwin had redefined him as "not for us anymore" and it was all over.

But that was a totally different situation. Walker won't have a primary, and he'll have all the money in the world and then some. He'll move to the center to pummel any presumptive nominee from the get-go. That's already happening with Burke.

So the better strategy is to have a crowded primary so that the Republican smear machine will have to hold its fire until at least the primary date in August 2014.

Aside from strategy, having a good, competitive primary is just the better alternative. It sharpens a candidate, puts him or her through the wringer, and makes that candidate stronger for the general election.

The problem with primaries for mainstream Republicans these days is that extreme right-wing primary voters make their party's candidates move so far to the crazy side that they can't get back to the center in time for November, if they survive at all.

The Democrats don't have the same issue on the left. In fact, the main problem for the Democratic Party right now is that it lacks vision. It's more concerned about winning elections than standing for anything and so, as a result, it does neither.

A primary would spur a needed debate within the party about what it is and where it's going. Do the Democrats want to continue to be Republicans-lite, and to win elections only to do nothing with power once they gain it? Or do they want to stand for something?

Nominating Mary Burke or anyone else in a backroom won't get us that answer.

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