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Wisconsin's Choice

If last weekend’s state Democratic convention in Oshkosh proved anything, it is that the race for governor of Wisconsin remains unsettled.

There’s no question that former state Rep. Kelda Roys, who was already showing strength before the convention, got a big boost from her clear first-place finish in the straw poll that was conducted by WisPolitics.com. She gathered twice as many votes as the presumed front-runner, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, and twice as many as the labor-backed candidate many believed would pose the greatest threat to Evers, firefighters union chief Mahlon Mitchell. In addition, three other contenders got a boost by delivering crowd-pleasing speeches and finishing in close competition with Evers and Mitchell in the straw poll: state Rep. Dana Wachs, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, and former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign head Mike McCabe.

But the applause for all of these contenders and a few others was generously divided, and no candidate mustered even a quarter of the straw poll vote. So the contest for the Democratic nomination still has plenty of room for definition. The contenders will do their best to distinguish themselves over the next two months, but the real responsibility falls to the grass-roots Democrats, independents and disgruntled Republicans who vote in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

From a small “d” democracy standpoint, that’s as it should be. From a big “D” Democratic Party standpoint, however, that means that the contest remains nebulous at a point when Republican Gov. Scott Walker is focusing all of his political skills on heading off the “blue wave” that might sweep him from office.

Political parties do not relish uncertainty, especially in high-stakes years like 2018.

Progressive activists at the convention were pleased that the gubernatorial candidates sounded bolder themes and competed far more aggressively than in the past to embrace an economic and social justice agenda. But they were still fretting. With such a large field going after the same base of voters, there were lingering concerns that the party could yet end up with a nominee who lacks the right stuff to generate the outsized November turnout that’s required to displace Walker and his Republican allies.

So it should come as no surprise that a pair of statewide groups that have built on the energy of the 2016 campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — who won 56 percent of Wisconsin’s primary vote and carried 71 of 72 counties — are trying to clarify the competition.

Leaders of Our Wisconsin Revolution and the Wisconsin Working Families Party have come up with a strategy to help progressives ponder their picks before the primary — and potentially to clarify the competition. Their “Wisconsin’s Choice” project recalls the efforts of old-school progressives who a century ago organized on behalf of Robert M. La Follette and left-leaning candidates in Republican primaries, and of the New Democratic Coalition campaigners who a half-century ago sought to unite anti-Vietnam War forces in Democratic primaries.

Arguing that “it’s time that the people set the agenda, and define a clear vision of what we expect from our elected officials,” the groups have outlined an ambitious plan for “town hall meetings, mass video conferences, online surveys, kitchen table gatherings, student organizing committees, and public forums in local libraries” to develop “a Wisconsin People’s Agenda, and a ‘job description’ for policies we want the next governor to champion. Then we will come together and choose a People’s Champ to change the direction of Madison.”

To pick that “People’s Champ,” the groups began a multi-round endorsement process in April, with online voting that narrowed what was then an even larger field down to nine candidates — Roys, Mitchell, Evers, Vinehout, Wachs, McCabe, Matt Flynn, Andy Gronik and Paul Soglin. Since then, the candidates have addressed issues that are of particular concern to Wisconsin progressives: wages and worker power, the environment, health care and criminal justice reform.

Round two of the ranked-choice voting, which started Monday, June 4, and finishes Thursday, June 7, at 10 p.m., will narrow the field to four contenders for the endorsement. Those candidates are then expected to address more issues, participate in forums and encourage their supporters to vote in the final round.

Our Revolution Wisconsin Co-chair Sarah Lloyd and Wisconsin Working Families Party Director Marina Dimitrijevic believe this initiative has the potential to attract tens of thousands of participants. The voters don’t have to be members of the groups; they are only asked to make an “activist pledge” to canvass, phone bank or otherwise work on “defeating the Walker agenda.”

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The activist component distinguishes the “Wisconsin's Choice” project from a typical endorsement process, as does the use of ranked-choice voting to select the final slate of candidates. Voters who cast ballots this week will rank their top four picks. The organizers explained: “With ranked-choice voting, voters can rank candidates as they want in order of preference. Candidates do best when they attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out for second and even third choices. What this means is that the ultimate winner is the candidate who has the broadest support. It also means that even if your #1 preference does not emerge on top, maybe your #2 will. It asks voters to be mature, so to speak, and think about who they like in addition to their top choice.”

In the final round of voting in early July, participants will cast only one vote. The winner must gain a majority of the votes in order to secure the “People’s Champ” endorsement. As the convention straw poll illustrated, that’s a high bar.

But it is fair to say that if a candidate crosses it, he or she could get a critical boost going into the final weeks before a primary that at this point remains wide open. Readers can learn more about the “Wisconsin's Choice” project at wichoose.org.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times