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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Madland: Mark Harris' run for Congress could make or break Wisconsin Democratic Party leadership
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Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris (left) explored a gubernatorial bid, but Wisconsin Democratic Party leaders, including chair Mike Tate(right), lined up behind Mary Burke.
Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris (left) explored a gubernatorial bid, but Wisconsin Democratic Party leaders, including chair Mike Tate(right), lined up behind Mary Burke.

Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris announced last week he is running as a Democrat for Wisconsin's 6th Congressional District.

This is not the first time Harris' name has been mentioned for higher office. If you had asked me a year ago to name a theoretical opponent for Gov. Scott Walker in the governor's race, I would have said Mark Harris.

Harris himself had entertained the idea of a gubernatorial run. However, he decided not to run once the state party heads started lining up behind Mary Burke.

Harris is a Democrat who is more fiscally conservative than I would like. One reason for that is because he serves in a purple county, maybe one that leans slightly red. Let's just say Winnebago County is fuchsia.

Winnebago County functions as a microcosm of the state, narrowly divided with the potential to swing between elections. In the 2012 recall election, 56% of Winnebago voters picked Walker. Yet, Obama carried the county with 51% of the vote later that year.

That's a seven-point swing from June to November -- those mythical Walker/Obama voters do exist! And they live in the general vicinity of Oshkosh! And Mark Harris found a way to get them to elect him.

I also like the way Harris can competently tear apart Walker's policies, such as in this statement, in which he examines the inequities of the latest round of tax cuts.

Finally, it doesn't hurt that Harris doesn't have any connections to Madison. I know both U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and former Gov. Jim Doyle all won statewide office while connected to our city, but Walker and company made Act 10 into a Madison vs. "real Wisconsin" fight. Burke's seat on the Madison school board gives Walker the opportunity to talk about how his "reforms" made tax cuts possible, while Harris would be able to talk about the pain felt by local governments throughout the state.

Despite Harris' strengths, I'm not saying that it was necessarily a mistake for the Democratic Party to go with Burke as its candidate.

It is not uncommon for a state party to pick its preferred candidate long before a primary, even though it is rather enjoyable to poke fun at Dem chair Mike Tate's handling of the issue. Last Monday morning, former Republican state Rep. Roger Roth announced he was running for state Senate. Walker and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald both made statements endorsing Roth that same day.

There are also several areas where Burke is a stronger candidate than Harris. She has private-sector experience, worked extensively with the Boys and Girls Club, and is a woman in a state with a government that has gotten less friendly to women over the last three-and-a-half years.

Burke's positions on things like raising the minimum wage show a candidate who is more aligned with progressives than Harris would have been. Harris' moderate nature could have easily turned his campaign into a Tom Barrett redux.

The results in November will show if the state Dems made a good choice going with Burke over Harris. No matter the outcome, it will provide ample discussion for Wisconsin's political armchair quarterbacks.

If Harris underperforms and Burke does well, it will be a redemption for Tate, whose record of winning elections that don't feature Obama at the top of the ticket is abysmal. If Burke loses and Harris outperforms her in the 6th District, particularly if the 2014 Walker/Harris voters make up a similar percentage as 2012 Walker/Obama voters, it may signal it's time for new Democratic Party leadership.

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