Wisconsin Democrats will have a candidate to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker — someday — and when they do, the party is determined to get their campaign off the ground as fast as possible.
While nearly a dozen major candidates skirmish to be the nominee, the party is already raising money and building its field operation to support the winner of the Aug. 14 primary.
Uncertainty over the nominee has slowed fundraising for Democrats, leading to consternation that they might be in a big hole against Walker by late summer. That prompted Tom Russell, who ran Russ Feingold’s unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2016, to lead an effort for the Democratic Governors Association to raise money earmarked for the eventual nominee.
Democrats remember Tommy Thompson’s fate in 2012, when he came out of a similarly crowded GOP primary for U.S. Senate without much cash and went on to lose to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported on Russell’s effort earlier this month. He confirmed to The Associated Press that he is working for the DGA but declined to comment on what he was doing.
Joe Zepecki, an adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s campaign in 2014, said having funding available will help the nominee quickly prepare for the looming general election fight.
“I’m in favor of that,” he said of Russell’s effort. “It’s good because it shortens the window of time between having an organization and team to win a primary and the much more complicated task of winning a general election.”
Zepecki now works as an adviser for the liberal group For Our Future, which is expected to also become active in the governor’s race but has not yet spent any money for Democrats.
The highest profile candidates in the race are state schools chief Tony Evers; Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma; state Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire; former state Rep. Kelda Roys; state firefighter union leader Mahlon Mitchell; former state party director Matt Flynn; political activist Mike McCabe; Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik; and corporate attorney Josh Pade.
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All have qualified to and are expected to speak to Democrats at the state convention Friday in Oshkosh.
The financial advantage for Walker up to now is stark.
In the last half of 2017, Walker raised more than the eight Democratic challengers in the race at that time combined — $3.7 million to about $2.3 million.
Walker had $4.2 million in cash on hand in January, money he’s been able to tap to help pay for his current $1.4 million television ad buy that’s consisted of three positive spots touting his record so far with no counter-advertising from Democrats.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party is also trying to bolster its field operation to catch up with Republicans and be in position to help whichever nominee wins the primary.
Since March 2017, the coordinated Democratic campaign has spread more than two dozen paid organizers across the state to help build more than 100 “community teams” to organize and contact voters, the earliest it’s ever launched such an effort.
That network was tapped for April’s Supreme Court election, where the party said it knocked on 29,000 doors and made 15,000 phone calls on behalf of the winning liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet.
Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman was confident in the GOP’s standing.
“Democrats are years behind the Republican Party when it comes to year-round field operations and program sophistication, and we’re doubling down on the successful field efforts that have been continuous since 2012 — already more than doubling the number of offices this year with plans to open dozens statewide,” he said.