Wisconsin Showdown

Who Will Take On Scott Walker? More to the Point, Who Cares?

The Democratic candidates vying for a shot at Wisconsin's anti-union governor don't exactly inspire enthusiasm. Ben Jacobs on the milquetoast field.

04.29.12 4:00 AM ET

The competition for the most exciting election of 2012 is between the re-election campaign of Barack Obama and June's possible recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The competition for the least exciting election, on the other hand, is likely between the Republican national primaries and the Democratic contest to take on Walker.

The difference is that, while the Republican primary at least featured colorful characters like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, the excitement in Wisconsin peaks with candidates like longtime Secretary of State Doug LaFollette, who campaigns wearing a black vest emblazoned with the words “Hello, I’m Doug LaFollette.” It’s enough to make a voter long for thrill-a-minute Tim Pawlenty.

LaFollette and his vest are an afterthought in the primary—they are just too interesting. Instead, the competition has boiled down to a two-man race between former Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, the 2010 Democratic nominee, and Kathleen Falk, the union-favored candidate who used to be the county executive in Dane County, where the liberal bastion of Madison is located. Barrett is currently ahead in the polls by about seven points. It is a competitive primary, in which both sides are well financed and motivated. There just isn’t much difference between the two.

Falk is considered the more labor-friendly candidate and has the support of virtually every union in the state. This is partly because she has been committed to running in a recall election for six months and was able to consolidate Democratic support in that period. It also helps that Falk, if elected, has pledged to veto any budget that does not fully restore the collective bargaining rights that Walker rolled back. Even Phil Walzak, a spokesman for the Barrett campaign, admits that it has given the image of being the “more pure candidate” (a label that he strenuously disputes). Falk, though, is also not well known statewide and carries the burden of coming from Madison—in a state where “Madison liberal” is as much an epithet as is “San Francisco liberal” nationally.

In contrast, Barrett is better known than Falk as a former mayor of Milwaukee and congressman. He has been endorsed by most of the Wisconsin Democratic political establishment, including Sen. Herb Kohl, former congressman David Obey, and nearly half of the Democrats in the state Senate. He also presents a slightly more moderate image than Falk to the handful of swing voters who will ultimately decide the recall. Barrett, however, is not a perfect candidate either, and has only been in the race since the end of March. He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010 against Walker and he lost. A rematch might not present the cleanest contrast for those Democrats who want the campaign to be about workers rights rather than sour grapes. Also, while Barrett does have a long and distinguished political career, he’s best known for getting beat up in 2009 while attempting to come to a woman’s rescue in a domestic dispute.

These differences are comparatively small and more biographical than ideological. Stephanie Bloomingdale, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO recited Falk’s qualifications to The Daily Beast, but admitted “any one [of the Democratic candidates] would do a good job.” Although “the candidate matters,” in Bloomingdale’s mind, “the goal is to unseat Scott Walker and send a message” more than to elect a specific Democrat.

In the meantime, Wisconsin Democrats still have to sift through their candidates and pick one on May 8. They just may have a difficult time staying awake in the process.