Tom Barrett Enters Race for Governor

 Joe Murray  |    January 13, 2010

“Long considered the leading contender on the Democratic side, Barrett entered the race after months of speculation about whether or not he would run.”

On November 15, 2009, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced his campaign for Governor of Wisconsin on the Democratic ticket.

Long considered the leading contender on the Democratic side, Barrett entered the race after months of speculation about whether or not he would run. Democrats believe Barrett is their best chance to hold on to the governor’s office in what could be a difficult year for their party both nationally and in Wisconsin.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Mayor Barrett’s political experience will likely make him a formidable candidate in 2010. He was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1984, the State Senate in 1988 and Congress in 1992. Prior to his election as Mayor of Milwaukee in 2004 (re-elected in 2008), he ran for governor in the 2002 Democratic primary, losing a close race to then Attorney General Jim Doyle.

Barrett supporters point to several factors they believe will lead to a victory in November:

  • Money: When Barrett announced his run for governor in November, his campaign already had $850,000 in the bank. That factor alone gives Democrats some confidence that Barrett will be able to raise money as successfully as GOP front runner Scott Walker, who had $1.1 million in his account in July 2009. Barrett has a proven track record when it comes to raising money to finance his campaigns – a key component of any successful statewide effort.
  • City of Milwaukee: One of Scott Walker’s strengths running for statewide office is the fact he was elected and re-elected three times as a Republican Milwaukee County Executive in the largest Democratic County in Wisconsin. As Barrett enters the race, Democrats argue the Walker “Milwaukee advantage” will disappear given Barrett’s deep Milwaukee roots and success running for several political offices. Barrett generally receives more than 60 percent of the vote in his elections.
  • Hero: Barrett was the subject of national news in August (the “Hero Mayor”) when he was badly beaten while trying to stop a domestic dispute outside the State Fair. The Mayor was hospitalized with head injuries, broken teeth and a severely fractured hand that will never be the same. Barett already has a well-deserved “good-guy” image, and his “come to the rescue” intervention will make it more difficult for the opposition to criticize him. Even those who disagree with the Mayor and his policies like him.
  • Obama: Barrett will have the full support of President Obama and his White House team, and this will mean more money, more organization and more staff coming into Wisconsin for an all-out effort to elect Barrett governor and keep Wisconsin in the Democratic column. This is important to the future Obama re-election effort in 2012 and, in the short term, attempts to gain an edge in the redistricting battle that the Legislature is responsible for every 10 years.

Critics of Barrett cite two major weaknesses that burden the likely Democratic nominee. First, he showed reluctance to jump into the race. Doyle announced his retirement in August and Barrett waited until November 15 to officially announce his candidacy. Some consider this delay to be a sign that Barrett is a “reluctant candidate,” a candidate that had to be talked into the race by others. These insiders view Barrett as a candidate who lacks the belly fire for a tough and expensive campaign in a year that may be difficult for Democrats across the board. They remember the “vanilla campaign” he ran in the 2002 gubernatorial primary.

The other potential weakness is Barrett’s record as a true Progressive. Is this the right profile for a Democratic candidate running in 2010? If President Obama and the Democratic Congress continue to lose support with Independent voters – a significantly large block of votes in Wisconsin – will a candidate who endorsed Obama and maintains a long record of supporting many of the same policies be the right fit as a candidate for governor? Isn’t this the exact candidate comparison Scott Walker (or Mark Neumann) is looking for: “Tom the Taxer” Barrett vs. “Tax Freeze” Scott?

The Democrats got the man they wanted. Will it work for them in November?

Joe Murray is Director of Politcal & Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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