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Wisconsin Recall Debate

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, left, lost to Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 and in the 2012 recall election. He may join the crowded Democratic primary to challenge Walker again this year.

Last week’s revelation that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is thinking about challenging Gov. Scott Walker for a third time fueled two narratives about this year’s election — that the current Democratic field is weak and that Walker is vulnerable.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report, highlighted the perception that the growing Democratic field does not include a stand-out candidate.

“That sort of sums it up,” Duffy said of Barrett possibly getting into the race. “Whatever evidence there might be that Walker has some vulnerability, you look at the Democratic side of the aisle and say, ‘Is there a candidate there that can beat him?’ Barrett’s contemplation of the race sends a message that ‘No, there’s not.’ ”

Duffy and other national political experts who rate gubernatorial races say the Wisconsin contest “leans Republican,” meaning Walker has a better than 50/50 chance of winning a third term, even in what could be a Democratic wave election year.

But the race could become a “toss-up” depending on who emerges from the Democratic primary, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“I don’t think Walker is a lock to get re-elected,” Kondik said. “However the Democratic field is so scrambled to me that it’s hard to make any judgments about it until that Aug. 14 primary.”

Which Democrat is the biggest threat to Gov. Scott Walker?

Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, changed his rating of the race from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican” shortly after the recent state Supreme Court election, in which the candidate supported by Democrats won a 12-point victory. Walker has issued several warnings to Republicans in the wake of that election that a “blue wave” is coming, including a recent campaign ad that states: “Democrats are winning.”

Gonzales said the nominee might not matter in the current climate, where voters are angry and frustrated at President Donald Trump and may want to send a message by voting against any Republican on the ballot. It’s also not surprising to see so many candidates lining up to challenge Walker, he said.

“Some of the energy we’re seeing on the Democratic side (nationally) has more Democrats becoming candidates,” Gonzales said. “Very few Democrats have a truly clear shot at the races we’re focusing on. There’s primaries in lots of them. Even if you are a big name it doesn’t mean the entire party is going to roll over for you.”

Barrett would likely enter the Democratic primary with more name recognition than any other candidate, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.

The latest Marquette Law School Poll found state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers had the lowest percentage of respondents (67 percent) who didn’t offer an opinion about him. That number for Barrett ranged from 43 percent in February 2012 to 12 percent right before the recall election (the poll didn’t exist prior to the 2010 election).

The poll also found Evers with the most support (18 percent), followed by Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (9 percent), former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn (7 percent), former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe (6 percent), Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma (5 percent), Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell (4 percent), Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire (4 percent), Milwaukee-area businessman Andy Gronik (3 percent) and former Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison (0.3 percent).

Those candidates all had hired campaign staff by the beginning of the year. Seven other candidates also have said they are running, including liberal radio talk show host and radio station owner Mike Crute, who announced his candidacy last week.

The field won’t be set until June 1 when nomination papers are due. The next Marquette poll won’t be conducted until after then, poll director Charles Franklin said.

“With no one having jumped out to a consensus leading position at this point, one where their opponents recognize it as well, it means that there’s an understandable frustration among supporters that they’re not seeing big movement in the race and an emerging candidate,” Franklin said. “That is not just for the party — but especially for the party — an issue because it suggests the primary is going to be about gaining recognition and establishing yourself as a frontrunner, more than it will be laying the foundation for a fall campaign against the governor.”

Barrett’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.

Barrett’s strengths include having run statewide and being the executive in charge of the largest city in the state, Burden said. But the obvious weakness, Burden said, is his having lost three times for governor in 2002, 2010 and 2012 — the latter two against Walker, including a recall election.

Gonzales also noted Democratic voters are wary of an establishment figure trying to clear the field. Duffy was skeptical that Barrett would knock any of the top Democratic contenders out of the race.

“If Barrett does get in, unlike 2014, nobody is going to clear the decks for him,” Duffy said. “He’s going to have to fight this out.”

Republicans were all too happy to welcome back a three-time failed candidate, even though it’s far from clear that Barrett will actually get in the race. An aide close to Barrett said last week the chance is slim.

“The fact that ‘Try It Again’ Tom Barrett is preparing a fourth run for governor is proof positive that the Democrat establishment is struggling to salvage this race from a wide-open field of candidates with no plan aside from attacking the Wisconsin comeback led by Scott Walker,” Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said.

Former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Joe Wineke, who is supporting Evers, said Barrett would have two key ingredients: name recognition and money — his mayoral campaign had $621,000 in the bank at the end of last year, twice as much as Flynn, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate with the most money at that time.

But Wineke said Barrett won’t change the minds of Democratic insiders and elected officials who have already committed to a candidate.

“It says one thing,” Wineke said about Barrett contemplating a run. “People think Walker is eminently vulnerable. The only reason I can fathom that there are so many candidates running is they all think this is the year to beat Scott Walker.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.