On Oct. 26, 2009, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton announced that she would not seek the Democratic nomination for the gubernatorial seat being vacated by Jim Doyle.

It was a surprise. Lawton had been running since Doyle announced his decision not to seek a third term. And her campaign had been showing signs of strength -- despite the fact that Doyle was doing everything in his power to undermine the candidacy of a No. 2 who had frequently outshined No. 1. Unions had begun to endorse her, as had former state party Chair Matt Flynn and Milwaukee County party Chair Martha Love. Democratic legislators who already knew that 2010 would be a challenging year were throwing their support her way: Phil Garthwaite from the southwestern part of the state, Jim Holperin from the north, Bob Turner from Racine, John Steinbrink from Kenosha, Jim Sullivan from suburban Milwaukee.

The endorsements were not casually made. The current party leadership had never forgiven Lawton for upsetting Doyle’s handpicked candidate in the 2002 primary for lieutenant governor. Nor had they appreciated her breaking with the governor to advance a progressive agenda on issues ranging from rural development to campaign finance reform to restoring the independence of the Department of Natural Resources. But as Holperin, one of the savviest outstate Democrats, explained it: “Lt. Gov. Lawton has shown time and again she has the experience as well as the leadership capabilities to be our next governor. From her years of work promoting community economic development to her positions on veterans and outdoor issues, this endorsement was an easy one for me.”

Unfortunately, Democratic bosses in Washington and Milwaukee refused to consider Lawton. She was a passionate reformer who refused to play Doyle’s political games. She was a determined feminist who had backed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, which put her on the outs with the Obama team. So, in October 2009, they moved to get Lawton out of the race. Doyle crudely dismissed her candidacy in statements to the press. Obama aides said she would not be welcome on stage when the president visited Madison to deliver a major education address.

Finally, on Oct. 25, 2009, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that President Obama wanted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to be the Democratic nominee. “White House officials have repeatedly made it very clear that the Obama administration is on board with the mayor,” reported the article, which detailed the determined efforts of the White House and Doyle to elbow Lawton out of the running. The article quoted a top Democrat as saying of the Obama operatives: “These people don’t (expletive) around.”

The next day, Lawton announced that she was quitting the race for personal reasons. Wisconsin’s slower-on-the-uptake reporters struggled to figure out what that meant. But there was never any mystery. Lawton had been informed that the full force of the White House, the Doyle administration and party political operations would be used to block her fundraising, organizing and efforts to mount a meaningful campaign.

So the Democratic establishment got its wish.

How did that work out?

On Oct. 26, 2010, urgent calls went out from the campaigns of Democrats in key Wisconsin races. Polls were showing that the Democrats had “a woman problem.”

After benefiting from a wide “gender gap” in their favor for the better part of two decades, Democrats were barely running even with Republicans among women voters. This was a serious political concern, as Wisconsin Democrats had relied on the gender gap for years to re-elect Feingold and to elect members of Congress. It had been critical to Doyle’s first win in 2002, and to the party’s advantage in legislative contests.

If the gender gap closed, Democrats would lose.

The Feingold campaign quickly cut an advertisement featuring women talking up the senator and pointing out the serious flaws of his challenger, Oshkosh millionaire Ron Johnson. Barrett’s campaign scrambled to highlight the support the mayor had received from prominent women, as well as his pro-choice position.

But on Election Day, exit polling found that Wisconsin Democrats had lost the gender-gap advantage.

Women, who traditionally vote at a higher rate than men, this year turned out at only the same rate.

And the women who did vote barely helped the Democrats. In the Senate race, men voted by a wide 56-42 margin for Republican Johnson. Women favored Feingold by only 52-48, a statistical tie.

In the governor’s race, the numbers were even worse for the Democrats. Republican Scott Walker won male voters by 57-42, while Democrat Barrett won women by just 51-48. White women actually favored Walker, as did older women, who formed a significantly higher portion of the electorate than in 2006 or 2008.

So what would have happened if the Democratic ticket had been headed by an engaged and energetic woman who has been nationally recognized for her work on economic development issues, who is exceptionally popular in Milwaukee’s African-American community, who speaks Spanish fluently, who has strong ties to and bases of support within key unions, and who could tap into the state and national fundraising networks of both Emily’s List and Hillary Clinton’s backers? What would have happened if the Democratic nominee was enthusiastic about the race and excited to present herself as a candidate to become the first woman governor of Wisconsin? Would it have helped with the gender gap? Would it have helped with the enthusiasm gap among younger voters, especially younger women?

I say yes. If turnout among women had been normal for a midterm election, and if the gender gap had remained as it was before this year, Russ Feingold would have been re-elected and a Democrat would have been elected governor. Barbara Lawton would have excited precisely the voters that Democrats needed most.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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