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Citizen Dave: Money matters less in elections than the Wisconsin Democrats think
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Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris
Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris

There's one word to describe why Democratic Party of Wisconsin insiders are so intent on anointing a 2014 gubernatorial candidate without a primary: money.

In the world of full-time, professional political operatives -- and in the words of Randy Newman -- it's money that matters. That's why the party pros want Mary Burke to be their nominee. She can write a check to fund some substantial part of her campaign. She's not Herb Kohl wealthy, but she does all right.

And that's why Winnebego County Executive Mark Harris announced last Friday that he would not be joining Burke in a primary for the Democratic nomination. After noting that he couldn't raise enough money, he said one thing to the State Journal that was haunting: "I don't want to do anything that's going to hurt the Democrats."

That indicates that someone was telling Harris that a primary would hurt the Democratic Party. Apparently, pressure was put on Harris (or at least arguments were made to him) that a primary was a bad thing. Now that is, in another single word, ridiculous.

Far from hurting the party, a primary would give the eventual nominee name recognition, allow that nominee to test arguments, learn to speak in front of crowds and on television and radio, and maybe get used to taking a hit. For a lightly experienced candidate like Burke, going into a general election against Walker without a primary would be like the Packers facing their first regular season opponent without a training camp.

A primary would also be good defense. The Walker machine would have to hold its firepower on the negative attacks if there were more than one credible candidate. If her professional handlers get what they want, Burke, who is really good person, could find her reputation trashed and herself defined before she even files nomination papers.

So, if a primary makes so much sense, why are the pros working so hard to avoid one? It's because in their view that lack of a primary gives Burke a chance to spend a year doing nothing but raising money to add to whatever she can start with from her own bank account. And moreover, she wouldn't have to spend anything to get the nomination. When you believe money is all there is to politics this actually makes sense.

But it ignores the advantages of preparation, name recognition and insulation from attack that I noted above. Money spent on a primary is not money wasted. It's being invested in the candidacy.

Look, I've been around this block. It's not that I think money doesn't matter. It's just that I think it doesn't matter as much as most pols think it does.

There are numerous examples of the better-financed candidate losing. I beat Paul Soglin in 2003 with less money and he came back to beat me eight years later when I spent more than he did. The Madison aldermanic candidate who holds the record for money spent on her race lost the election. Russ Feingold defeated two much better financed candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1992. The late Wisconsin U.S. Senator Bill Proxmire routinely spent a hundred dollars or so on his reelection efforts. Governor and then Senator Gaylord Nelson said he never once asked anyone for money. He felt it was beneath the dignity of the office.

But the modern formula of professional politics is this: get your candidate to sit on the phone for hours on end begging for money, and then use that money to produce and run negative attack ads on your opponent. That's it.

Wouldn't it be horrible if the pros were right? Thing is, I have a hunch they're not.

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