There are just a few former political hopefuls in Wisconsin who can relate to the uphill battle Green Party candidate Ben Manski faces in his bid for state Assembly.
Tony Palmeri is one of them.
"People are probably telling him they like him and they like his ideas," says Palmeri, who ran as a Green Party candidate in 2004 for a state Assembly seat in Oshkosh, earning 9 percent of the vote. "But once voters get inside the voting booth, it becomes really hard for them to vote against one of the two major political parties," adds Palmeri, an associate communications professor at UW-Oshkosh and now a member of the non-partisan Oshkosh City Council.
But Manski, an attorney and director with the Liberty Tree Foundation, a Madison-based group that works for democratic reform, and former co-chair of the National Green Party, is eager for the challenge. In fact, he urges voters in Assembly District 77, a heavily Democratic district on Madison's west side, to ignore party ties.
"The election will be a test of whether this will be a progressive district or a partisan district," says Manski, 36, whose main challenger on Nov. 2 will be Dane County Board supervisor and environmental consultant Brett Hulsey, 52. "District 77 voters are sophisticated and critical thinkers. I'm counting on them to distinguish between the (progressive Democratic) label and the real thing."
If elected, Manski, who has already nabbed an important endorsement from the politically powerful Madison Teachers Inc., would be the first Green Party candidate to win a seat in the Wisconsin Legislature. The last time a third-party candidate was elected to the state Legislature was in 1944 when Fred Risser (the father of state Sen. Fred Risser of Madison) won his third term as a member of the Progressive Party to the state Senate.
Hulsey dismisses the notion that voters would turn out for Manski simply to cast a history-making vote.
"I'm ready to go," says Hulsey. "Nobody has a better record than me."
During his primary victory speech Tuesday evening, Hulsey noted the support he sought and obtained from powerful Dane County Democrats, including Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Falk's husband, former state Rep. Peter Bock, spoke to Hulsey supporters at his victory party Tuesday evening on behalf of Falk, who was out of town. Bock says Falk spent many nights calling voters, asking them to vote for Hulsey.
"This all began May 10th, when Kathleen got a call from Brett asking for her endorsement at 7:30 in the morning," Bock says of the day news broke that Rep. Spencer Black would not seek another term in office. "Since then, she has worked on his behalf."
Despite this support from Democratic heavyweights - or maybe because of it - Manski says he, not Hulsey, is the true progressive candidate.
"I don't consider Dave and Kathleen progressive Democrats," says Manski, noting that true progressives take a more inclusive and grass-roots approach to policy making than these leaders or Hulsey. "I think the progressives in the Democratic Party are not happy with the result of the primary," he adds.
Mike Tate, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, dismisses Manski's statements about party discontent, adding that Manski doesn't have a chance against Hulsey in November.
"I am 100 percent confident that Brett Hulsey will be the next representative for the 77th District," Tate says. "He is a skilled campaigner, he knows what he's doing and his record will carry him through."
Two other candidates - Republican David Redick and Constitution Party candidate David Olson - are vying for Black's seat, but the district's tradition of being led by progressive, environmentally-friendly lawmakers means Hulsey and Manski are the hands-down favorites heading into November.
Voting records from the 2008 presidential election show district voters chose Democratic Barack Obama 4 to 1 over Republican John McCain and it's been roughly 40 years since the district was represented by a Republican. These numbers are one reason why Joel Rogers, an expert on third-party candidates who helped found in 1990 the now-defunct New Party, believes Manski has a shot.
"Manski won't be viewed like most third party candidates as a spoiler candidate or a waste of a vote," says Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and a UW-Madison professor of law, political science and sociology. "It's an open race. All rules are off."
If elected, Manski says he would reach out to progressive Democrats to create a new legislative caucus, a smart move to turn one third-party vote into a bigger, more powerful progressive voting bloc. He's already looking for endorsements from those he sees as the more "progressive" leaders in the Democratic Party, including former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and attorney and former gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey, all of whom endorsed attorney Fred Wade in Tuesday's District 77 primary. Wade was among the four candidates defeated by Hulsey.
Palmeri says Manski will have to get his message out and reach every voter in the district to stand a chance against a major-party candidate.
"The only way Ben will win is if he does the ground work and knocks on every door in that district," Palmeri says.
Manski will have help from Madison Teachers Inc.'s political arm, MTI VOTERS, which will lend some of its 3,000 members for door-to-door campaigning and phone banking. Mike Lipp, president of the union and the athletic director at West High School, says Manski got the group's endorsement because members were impressed, in particular, with his ideas on how to fund public education, which he called "exceptional."
"We think this would really send a message if Ben Manski were to win," says Lipp, who notes his union has never endorsed a third party candidate before and, until this race, had never endorsed in a primary race. "We think he has a real chance."