Why Aren't Prominent Democrats Stepping Up To Challenge Walker For Governor?

May 5, 2017

There’s been continued speculation on who might challenge Gov. Scott Walker in 2018. Walker has indicated that if he will run for a third term, he’ll announce this summer.

Since the beginning of the year, a number of well-known Wisconsin Democrats decided not to run for governor in 2018 - dramatically thinning the field. They include Congressman Ron Kind and state Sen. Minority Leader Jennifer Schilling, along with former state Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville. Cullen concluded he could not generate what he’d need to challenge a two-time incumbent.

“I’d have trouble putting together a statewide organization and I’d have even more trouble raising the kind of money that is necessary to be competitive with Gov. Walker who is going to have tens of millions of dollars," he said.

One of Walker’s greatest skills is his ability to raise money, Karen Hoffman says. She’s a political scientist at the Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington D.C.

“It seems to me that one of his strengths is an organization, and a funding, apparatus. It would be a pretty daunting task for someone to imagine trying to compete against that. He’s pretty well positioned in that respect,” Hoffman says.

Yet Hoffman says Walker would have a few weaknesses to overcome, for example, low approval ratings. The most recent Marquette Law School Poll shows that less than half of Wisconsinites - 45 percent approve of Walker’s performance.

She says Democrats could also work to drive a wedge between Republicans over Walker’s disagreement with GOP leaders on budget issues.

“There is some tension between Republicans in the Legislature and Walker this time around. That could be somewhat of an issue, if there are Republicans who disagree with him on things. He really hasn’t had that in the past very much. They’ve pretty much been all on the same page,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman says you’d think Democrats would pounce, if they view Walker as vulnerable. But UW-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee says even well-financed Democrats such as Ron Kind and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele aren’t interested.

“I think what we’ve been seeing over the last six months or so is all these politicians from, I guess you would say, the bench of the Democratic Party are doing their own risk assessment and are one by one deciding that they wouldn’t have a good enough chance of beating Gov. Walker to give up what they’re doing right now,” he says.

Mike McCabe
Credit Mike McCabe, Facebok page

So, Lee says that leaves what he calls farm league candidates mulling a run. One such hopeful could be Mike McCabe of the government watchdog group, Blue Jean Nation.

This week, about 200 Wisconsin citizens signed a letter urging McCabe to enter the race. On Thursday, he said he’s “willing,” and would aim to launch a campaign soon after Labor Day.

Lee says McCabe could appeal to Democrats and Independents alike.

“This would be very much in contrast to Mary Burke, who was a much more sort of moderate, middle of the road Democrat when she challenged Gov. Walker last time. She had a business background and was not perceived as being what we now call a Bernie Sanders Democrat. Maybe this will work, it’s almost like looking for the secret sauce of political success,” he says.

Lee says while McCabe is known in some political circles, it’s too early to tell if his potential candidacy would be a game changer in the governor’s race.

While McCabe has not yet indicated whether he’d run as a Democrat or an Independent, the names of a few other potential Democratic challengers are still floating. They include state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of northern Wisconsin and Milwaukee business owner Andrew Gronik.

Vinehout ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2012 recall election. She then flirted with a gubernatorial bid in 2014, but bowed out after she was injured in a car accident.