Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Free For All Guv's Race in Wisconsin

Two term Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) announced last week that he would not seek a third term, throwing wide open next year's race for the Badger State's top office (for a decent rundown see here). Doyle had been a consistent vote getter statewide, winning three terms as Attorney General and then two as Governor. Under normal circumstances, Doyle would have been virtually assured a third term (Wisconsin does not have term limits). However, with the worsening economy, Doyle's approval has cratered over the past year, with his numbers now hovering somewhere in the low 30's. With his announcement, several candidates have already announced, several more may be expected to jump in, and I'll venture that a few probably should.

Prior to this announcement, the two Republicans in the race were Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and former Wisconsin House member (1st District) Mark Neumann. Walker has been twice elected in Milwaukee County and was a candidate for the GOP governor's nomination last time around in 2006. However, midway through the race Walker dropped out (after some prodding by national GOP higher ups) to give then House member Mark Green (8th District) clear sailing to the party nod. Green went on to lose to Doyle handily (53%-45%) in a year Wisconsin moved solidly to the Democratic side (Green's House seat went blue to Rep. Steve Kagen). Neumann also has statewide ballot experience. After capturing the 1st District House seat in the 1994 GOP landslide, Neumann sought to take down Sen. Russ Feingold in 1998. Aided by Feingold's questionable campaign strategy (refusing national party money and abiding by the limits of the yet to pass McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill), Neumann almost scored an upset, losing by only 3 points. Both Walker and Neumann are fiscal and social conservatives. Of the two, Neumann is probably more to the extremes, especially because he hasn't been forced to govern and take pragmatic stances like Walker has as the head of Wisconsin's largest county.

On the Democratic side, things are just starting to shake out. First in the race is the current Lieutenant Governor, Barbara Lawton. While Lawton's first elected experience came with the number two spot under Doyle, she hails from a part of the state that is, in my mind, the most fascinating for Dems' chances--Green Bay and the upper Fox River Valley (see this post from last year's cycle).

The next Democrat that people are watching is 3rd District Congressman Ron Kind. The 3rd District is made up of the mostly rural western part of the state (see this older post for some background). The Blue Dog Kind has held the seat since replacing GOP moderate Steve Gunderson back in 1996. Given that the Democratic nominee will have to grapple with the state's economic downturn and no doubt have to demonstrate some fiscal bona fides, Kind is an intriguing potential candidate.

Third up, and yet to declare, is Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Falk has two things in her favor. First, she hails from the vote rich and most reliably Democratic part of the state--Madison. Dane County consistently has the state's highest turnout levels and, in a close primary or general, this could prove crucial. Second, she has run statewide before, losing to Doyle in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor. In a three way race, along with then Milwaukee congressman and now Mayor, Falk garnered 27% of the vote.

Which brings us to Barrett. Barrett has gotten a lot of unwanted attention, given the circumstances, over the past week, after being beaten outside the Wisconsin State Fair. Upon leaving with his family, Barrett came across a domestic disturbance and, in the process of calling the police and trying to separate the parties, ended up losing a few teeth, fracturing his hand, and requiring plastic surgery to close up some nasty cuts. Rachel Maddow profiled the episode the other day, speculating that this may gain Barrett some sympathy, and potentially votes, should he again seek the Governor's mansion. While Barrett hails from the largest city and county in the state, this may--ironically-work against him (and Walker too). Historically, Wisconsin voters have not elected their Governor from Milwaukee. One needs to go back to Civil War era elections to find the last time this happened. The big city / out state dynamic that I wrote about a while back has held quite well in Wisconsin.

One candidate that I would watch closely is 1st District Congressman Paul Ryan. While Ryan begged off the question of whether he was interested in the race, the clearly ambitious (many think he will run for the Senate soon) Ryan should, in my view, consider entering. The Republican candidate should, all things being equal, be at an advantage next year. While Ryan has risen quickly up the GOP ranks in the House--he now sits as the ranking member on the Budget Committee--his prospects of being a member of the majority party any time soon (and thus having any tangible policy influence) are dim given the size of the Democratic majority. Thus, for a wonkish, yet charismatic, politician like Ryan, the Governor's mansion would seem to be an attractive destination.

The wild card in all of this is how the Wisconsin political landscape will look 15 months from now. Should the economy improve the current GOP advantage could vaporize. While Wisconsin is always considered a classic swing state, recent elections have seen it move further to the Democratic side. A GOP presidential candidate hasn't won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Democrats have won the past two governor's races and the past 7 Senate races. In the last two cycles the Democrats have captured both houses of the state legislature and have gained one U.S. House seat. Obama romped through Wisconsin, winning the state by 14 points. Thus, both parties have reason to be optimistic. The result will hopefully be (for political junkies at least) a multi-candidate Battle Royale.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Quick Note on the Sotomayor Confirmation

Judge Sonia Sotomayor was just confirmed by the Senate, 68-31. Nine Republicans voted yes. One thing I would note is that 4 of those 9 yea votes are from retiring members (Gregg, Martinez, Bond, and Voinovich). Early on the process I speculated on how things might shake out on the Republican side (turns out I was wrong about a lot).

What seems clear is that the partisan voting trend continues on these nominations. Because of their impending retirments, these four no longer had to worry about any repurcussions stemming from supporting Sotomayor. Its hard for the leadership to whip Senators into line behind the party position when those Senators are on the way out the door. Voinovich's comments last week about the state of the Republican party and its increasing "southern-ness" seems, in retrospect, to be an insight into his thinking. Perhaps the most interesting of the Republican yeas is Lamar Alexander (R-TN) whose comments in support of Sotomayor sought to defuse the polarization of these nomination fights. Having run for President himself, Alexander may, one might speculate, be sympathetic to the critique offered by his Ohio colleague--although one can't imagine the Tennessean voicing his agreement.

***UPDATE: Nate Silver provides a rundown of the GOP vote and provides the following helpful visual on states' Hispanic population and the ultimate vote of their GOP senators.