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Citizen Dave: A 2014 Democratic primary for Wisconsin governor would be a good thing
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Mary Burke and Kathleen Vinehout
Mary Burke and Kathleen Vinehout

It now looks more likely that state Senator Kathleen Vinehout will challenge Mary Burke for the chance to take on Scott Walker next year as the Democratic nominee for Wisconsin governor.

Party insiders and professionals are apoplectic about that prospect. They shouldn't be. A primary will sharpen Burke as a candidate and push her to define herself early. Burke should genuinely welcome the senator into the race -- even encourage her to run.

Look, insiders never like primaries. I sure didn't when I was an incumbent. But the pros’ arguments in this case just don't hold up. There are two objections.

First, the insiders say that a primary will drain resources from the general election. But that assumes that money spent on advertising in the primary is wasted. If they keep it positive, it's not. In fact, Burke's main problem is that nobody knows her. If she doesn't define herself early, she'll get defined by Walker.

Think about what happened to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. Kerry lost that election in August of that year when he let George Bush and the "Swift Boat Veterans" define him (a genuine war hero) as insufficiently heroic, even though Bush himself got his father to keep him out of harm's way during the very same war.

If a primary forces Burke to spend some resources soon to define herself, she'll need to send Vinehout a nice Christmas card next year as she prepares to take up residence in Maple Bluff.

Moreover, there's no need for a negative mud fest. Vinehout won't have the resources to make any kind of serious run on TV time. With that field open, Burke can use the opportunity to introduce herself and her plans in a completely positive way.

The insiders' second argument is that a primary will force Burke to take positions that are out of the "mainstream" and to the left of where she needs to be. What they forget is that Vinehout has a record that puts her to the right, not the left, of Mary Burke. For example, Vinehout has a lifetime voting record from NARAL that stands at only 50%. The Wisconsin chapter of that organization attacked her hard in 2012. In a press release early last year, it declared: "Senator Vinehout is backpedaling on her anti-choice views and misrepresenting her past actions, but we will not be fooled. Her own record in the Senate tells the real story. Vinehout is not the leader we need to end the attacks on women's health launched by Governor Scott Walker and his anti-choice colleagues in the legislature."

Since reproductive rights issues are usually a litmus test for liberal support, I've never understood why Vinehout is viewed favorably on the far left. But it doesn't matter. You can't be pulled to the left by a conservative.

Finally, a primary challenge from a folksy, underfunded state senator will prod Burke to get out on the hustings more. She already has plunged in, visiting 30 counties and putting 10,000 miles on her car in just the last few months. She might have done that anyway, but if the prospect of a Vinehout challenge has motivated her, that's a good thing.

Political professionals believe three things. They believe it's all about money, that it's all about television, and that it's all about negative ads. Sadly, too often they're all too right. If a Vinehout challenge pulls Mary Burke away from the professionals' game plan by just a little bit, she will be doing both Burke and all of us a favor. And, in the end, Mary Burke will be a much better candidate in a much stronger position than she would be otherwise.

Run, Kathleen, run!

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