Democratic insiders believe Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will decide not to launch a campaign to be Wisconsin’s next governor, and some say Gov. Jim Doyle is "shopping" for another candidate to challenge Barbara Lawton for the party’s nomination.
Lawton, who is Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, picked up her most impressive endorsement yet Monday, when former Democratic Party of Wisconsin state chair and congressional candidate Matt Flynn announced he will support her bid for governor.
"The next governor of Wisconsin needs to be someone focused on creating new jobs. Barbara Lawton will be that governor. She is a strong leader who will fight for the economic security of our families and focus on keeping people on the job," Flynn said.
Barrett has not yet declared publicly whether or not he will run for governor.
When asked if he had contacted Barrett to inquire about his intentions, Flynn replied, "No, but I have been in contact with a member of his staff. And I left him a message."
Flynn added, "I think very highly of Tom Barrett. He’s a great mayor and would be a great governor, but I don’t think he’s running."
Winning the endorsement of a big hitter such as Flynn, who is an attorney and a partner at Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee, is a major coup for Lawton.
Flynn’s endorsement adds to a growing roster of key Lawton supporters from Barrett’s backyard, including: Milwaukee County Democratic Party chair Martha Love, state Sen. Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa), and Milwaukee County Supervisors Peggy West and Marina Dimitrijevic.
"I’m honored to have the support of former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Matt Flynn," Lawton said. "From his service in the Navy to his work as chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Matt Flynn is deeply patriotic and has built and reinforced his life-long commitment to D/democratic ideals. I am proud to have the endorsement of such an influential leader in our state’s Democratic Party."
Like most lieutenant governors before her, Lawton, 58 has served the past seven years in virtual anonymity.
The liberal Capital Times in Madison calls Lawton "Wisconsin’s green leader." She has been the chair of the Wisconsin Arts Board of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.
Lawton was the founder of the Greater Green Bay Area Community Foundation and the Multicultural Center, and she has served as an advisor to Entrepreneurs of Color and on various boards, including that of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Foundation. She also has served as a consultant to Wisconsin businesses expanding internationally.
Lawton, a graduate of Waterford High School, and husband Charles "Cal" Lawton have two grown children and four grandchildren. The Lawton family lived in Green Bay for more than 30 years. Their permanent home now is near Algoma.
She took office as Wisconsin’s 43rd lieutenant governor on Jan. 3, 2003, and was re-elected in 2006.
Will a challenger emerge?
Although Lawton’s relationship with outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has been icy, at best, Flynn does not foresee any significant challengers in the primary.
"I think she’ll be unopposed. I’ve been impressed that she’s been excited about running right from the beginning," Flynn said. "There just simply is nobody else that I’ve heard of that is thinking of running."
However, longtime Milwaukee Democratic supporter Evan Zeppos expects another candidate will emerge to challenge Lawton. That challenger could come from the private sector, Zeppos said.
"I’d be surprised if it isn’t a contested primary. I think it could be anyone who could raise money and anyone that could bring a fresh perspective to the Democratic primary. I think it could be someone who is not an elected official," said Zeppos, who operates a public relations firm in Milwaukee. "But it won’t surprise me if someone who is an elected official or a former elected official, thinks, ‘I could run.’ Barbara Lawton hasn’t raised a great deal of money yet. I just don’t think it will end up being that she’s the only Democratic candidate."
A private sector candidate could run on a pro-jobs plank without the political baggage that would be carried by a Madison-based Democratic insider, such as Lawton or Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
The Wisconsin gubernatorial race will be a top priority for both national parties and could likely attract a record $6 million to $8 million in political resources. The Obama administration is playing an interactive, if not interventional role, in the key Democratic primary races for 2010.
One Wisconsin Democratic insider, who asked not to be identified for this report, asked, "Will the White House settle for Barbara Lawton?"
Another Democratic insider said, "Doyle is shopping for another candidate. He does not think Lawton can win. I know he is. I’m aware that the governor is out there recruiting candidates."
Contested primaries are best
The traditional political wisdom is that contested primaries are beneficial to candidates because the process vets out the candidates and keeps them in the news cycle longer and more often.
Case in point: the presidential race of 2008. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama beat each other’s brains out in a long contested primary, keeping themselves in the headlines every day. Republican John McCain, who had sewn up his nomination relatively early, struggled to stay in the public’s eye.
Campaign donors also can become complacent in an uncontested primary.
The Republicans in Wisconsin can be assured of a hotly contested primary, featuring rivals Milwaukee County Scott Walker and former Congressman Mark Neumann of Janesville.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.