Currently, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) lacks a true standard bearer of any kind. This is because Democrats have virtually no power in Wisconsin state government: not counting federal offices like U.S. Senate and U.S. House seats (Democrats hold one of the two U.S. Senate seats and three of the eight U.S. House seats in Wisconsin) and officially non-partisan offices like state superintendent (which is held by a de facto Democrat who is ideologically center-left), Democrats are in the minority in both chambers of the Wisconsin State Legislature and, of the five officially partisan state executive offices, only the nearly powerless office of secretary of state is controlled by Democrats.
Steven Walters of WisconsinEye (basically a Wisconsin version of C-SPAN) named a long list of Democrats in this column for Milwaukee-area webgazine Urban Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, some of which could emerge as a standard-bearer of the DPW:
- State Senate Minority Leader-designate Jennifer Shilling: Shilling, who is from La Crosse in the western part of the state, was recently elected to be the new Democratic floor leader in the Wisconsin State Senate after the previous Democratic floor leader, Chris Larson, meddled in a Democratic primary in a state senate race in the southwestern part of the state, which pissed off progressives and led to an ultra-conservative Republican winning the general election. Shilling has represented the La Crosse area and rural areas to the south of La Crosse in the state senate since winning a 2011 recall election. I don’t expect Shilling to have a ton of influence on the state party beyond the Democratic state senate caucus, although she could emerge as a regional standard-bearer in the western part of Wisconsin.
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin: Baldwin, who is from Madison, is the highest-ranking Democratic elected official in Wisconsin. However, Baldwin hasn’t shown any interest in building the state Democratic Party organization, and she has mostly been a backbencher in the U.S. Senate in her first two years in office. Walters implied that Baldwin could have a considerable amount of influence over the state party, including having influence over whether or DPW Chairman Mike Tate runs for another term, in the coming years.
- Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate: Tate has been the DPW Chairman since 2009. However, Tate is absolutely hated by the progressive base of the party, and he’s built up a losing track record in the six years he’s been on the job. Additionally, Tate could decide not to run for another term as DPW Chairman, in fact, there have been high-grade rumors that Tate will step down at the end of his current term in June of next year, but Tate has been trying to deny those rumors in recent weeks. Tate is too tainted to be a standard-bearer of the state party.
- Former Governor Jim Doyle: Doyle, who is from Madison, was Governor of Wisconsin for two terms from 2003 to 2011, and is now a partner at the law firm Foley & Lardner, which is now represented in Wisconsin state-level politics by a Republican lobbyist. Doyle has played a mostly behind-the-scenes role in the state party since leaving electoral politics, and Doyle remains unpopular in Wisconsin, even with many in his own party, so he’s not going to re-emerge as any kind of standard-bearer of the party.
- U.S. Representative Ron Kind: Kind, who is from La Crosse, has represented much of the western part of Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1997. Kind is one of two Democrats (the other being former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold) who are believed to be considering running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Ron Johnson in 2016, in fact, Walters indicated there is a gentlemen’s agreement (or a de facto one) that Kind runs against Johnson if and only if Feingold doesn’t run against Johnson. Kind is already the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party in his region of the state (he’s built up a ton of institutional loyalty that has allowed him to win re-election by larger than normal margins despite having a centrist voting record that would normally result in Kind drawing progressive primary challengers, something that Kind has been able to avoid). However, Kind has repeatedly turned down opportunities to run statewide in recent years, so I doubt that he’d actually run against Johnson.
- Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold: Feingold, who is from Middleton in the south-central part of the state, served three terms in the U.S. Senate from 1993 to 2011 and is now a U.S. State Department envoy. Feingold reportedly plans to return to Wisconsin sometime early next year, and he could run for his old U.S. Senate seat. Feingold is still very well-liked by the progressive base of the party, although Feingold is not a party-building type of person that could become a standard-bearer of the state party.
- U.S. Representative Gwen Moore: Moore, who is from Milwaukee, has represented Milwaukee and nearby suburbs in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2005. Moore has never shown any interest in building the state party outside of the Milwaukee area, where she’s been a standard-bearer of the Democratic Party in that part of the state for years.
- U.S. Representative Mark Pocan: Pocan, who is from Madison, has represented much of south-central Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2013. As Walters noted, Pocan is more interested in building the Democratic Party at the national level than the state level. While Pocan is one of several individuals who may run for U.S. Senate in the event that neither Russ Feingold nor Ron Kind run, he’s not going to emerge as a standard-bearer of the DPW.
- Madison School Board Member Mary Burke: Burke, who is from Madison, has been a member of the school board in Wisconsin’s second-largest school district since 2012 and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor this year, losing to Republican incumbent Scott Walker. Burke has publicly stated that she’s done with statewide politics, so her influence over the state party will be minimal, probably limited to donating money to Democrats.
- Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ: Happ, who is from Jefferson in the south central part of the state, was the Democratic Party’s nominee for attorney general this year, losing to Republican candidate Brad Schimel. Happ has kept a very low profile since the November elections, but, if Happ were to run for re-election to the Jefferson County DA’s post, she would probably be the #1 Republican target in the entire state in 2016. It’s not clear as to exactly how much of a role Happ wants in building the state party, although she’s never struck me as a party-building type of person.
- State Senator Bob Jauch: Jauch, who is from Poplar in the northwestern part of the state, is retiring from the Wisconsin State Senate after having served seven terms from 1987 onward. Jauch may have some limited influence over the Democratic Party in the northern part of the state, but that would be it.
- State Assembly Assistant Minority Leader-designate Katrina Shankland: Shankland, who is from Stevens Point in the central part of the state, has represented much of Portage County in the state assembly since 2013 and is only 27 years old. Shankland has indicated that, despite representing a very progressive district, she intends to develop a centrist style of leadership that could alienate progressives, possibly hindering any effort by her to become a standard-bearer of the DPW.
- State Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca: Barca, who is from Kenosha in the southeastern part of the state, has represented parts of Kenosha area in the state assembly since 2008 and is the Democratic floor leader in the state assembly. Prior to that, Barca was the U.S. Representative for the Janesville/Racine/Kenosha region of the state for less than a full term from 1993 to 1995. Barca has quite a bit of influence over the state assembly Democrats’ campaign efforts, but his influence over the state party doesn’t extend beyond that.
- State Representative Evan Goyke: Goyke, who is from Milwaukee, has represented part of Milwaukee in the state assembly since 2013. Goyke unsuccessfully challenged Peter Barca for state assembly minority leader after this year’s elections. Goyke is probably on the outs in the eyes of the party establishment, so he’s, more than likely, not going to have any role in building the state party.
- Dane County Executive Joe Parisi: Parisi, who is from Madison, has been the county executive of Wisconsin’s second largest county since 2011. Walters indicated that Parisi wants to play a bigger role in the state party’s future, but it’s not clear what role Parisi wants to play.
- Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson: Nelson, who is from Kaukauna in the northeastern part of the state, has been the county executive of Outagamie County since 2011. Prior to that, Nelson was the Democratic Party’s unsuccessful nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010 and served in the state assembly from 2005 to 2011. Walters indicated that Nelson wants to play a bigger role in the state party’s future, but it’s not clear what role Nelson wants to play.
Additionally, some other individuals who Walters did not name could emerge as the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. I’ll go ahead and name some of them:
- State Representative Chris Taylor: Taylor, who is from Madison, has represented parts of the Madison area in the state assembly since 2011. Taylor has a very large following among progressives in Wisconsin, although she declined to run for statewide office this year and has, in recent months, kept a somewhat lower profile than early on in her career in the state assembly. However, Taylor is rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2018. It’s not exactly clear as to how much of a role Taylor wants in the future of the DPW, although she seems to be very ambitious.
- State Representative Melissa Sargent: Sargent, who is from Madison, has represented parts of the Madison area in the state assembly since 2013. Sargent is very well-respected among Wisconsin progressives, and she has been very vocal on a number of issues in recent months. More importantly, Sargent is very ambitious and appears to be interested in playing some sort of party-building role in Wisconsin.
- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele: Abele, who is from Milwaukee, has been the county executive of Wisconsin’s largest county since 2011. Abele is rumored to be considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2016 and is a large DPW donor, however, he’s absolutely hated by progressives for a large number of reasons, and he’s seen as a divisive figure within the party, which will hinder any attempt by Abele to put his stamp on the DPW.
Additionally, there’s the possibility that some little-known political figure could come from total or near-total obscurity and emerge as a powerful force in the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
It will be interesting to see who, if anybody, emerges as the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s standard-bearer in the coming months and years.