A fair number of progressives in traditional media and the blogosphere have bemoaned the fact that Mary Burke is so far the only Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin.
Some complain because they don’t like Burke, but others simply argue that no candidate -- especially a political newcomer -- should be spared a competitive primary.
“For a lightly experienced candidate like Burke, going into a general election against Walker without a primary would be like the Packers facing their first regular season opponent without a training camp,” wrote former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz in September.
However, in some ways, Burke has already won what political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck call an “invisible primary,” a process by which a candidate seeks support from political leaders before making his or her case to the voters. The objective, they argue, is for a party to “consolidate support behind a single candidate, ideally before the primaries even take place.”
In their recent book, “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” the two professors describe the apparent chaos that was last year’s Republican presidential primary as the result of no candidate being the clear winner behind the scenes. The relatively small number of endorsements from party leaders handed out before the primaries began was evidence of this.
“The number and pace of endorsements through 2011 demonstrated just how different this nomination process was than many others, as well as how seemingly unenthusiastic Republican leaders were about all of the candidates," they write.
The months of behind-the-scenes preparation that Burke engaged in before declaring her candidacy got her a number of key “invisible primary” victories, most prominently the all-but-declared backing of the state Democratic Party, which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported was helping Burke prepare her bid in July.
Within weeks of announcing, Burke had earned the endorsements of top liberal groups such as Progressives United and Planned Parenthood. Similarly, although few even considered Burke a potential candidate as recently as six months ago, Democratic elected officials were eagerly making the case for the Madison school board member soon after she launched the campaign in October.
“I think it’s really an exciting day,” said state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, reacting to Burke’s announcement last month. “I think she really brings a lot to the table.”
Just as important, she scared off potential competitors, notably Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, who in a statement describing his decision not to run noted that he would not have the resources to compete with Burke, a multimillionaire.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, may still join the race. If she does, she will be the underdog, not only because she lacks Burke’s money, but because Burke has spent months winning the “invisible primary.”