The race to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin has turned into a nasty fight between legislative colleagues, one championing experience and pragmatism, the other touting passion and exuberance.
When Baldwin announced in September her run for the U.S. Senate, eyes turned to 47-year-old state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. The 14-year legislator seemed the obvious choice to fill her seat. He replaced Baldwin in the Assembly, was a top party strategist and engineered the Democrats' 2008 Assembly takeover.
So it was a surprise to some when, an hour before Pocan's press conference announcing his candidacy, state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, sent out a statement entering the race. The 33-year-old was first elected to the Assembly in 2008 with Pocan's help, and was seen as a potential rising star. Still, many thought her too inexperienced to be a serious contender.
But in the past 10 months, the race for Baldwin's 2nd Congressional seat has turned into a fight over experience, approach and resolve.
On one side is Pocan, a liberal who argues that 19 years in politics taught him the value of working across the political aisle. On the other side is Roys, who said such thinking has allowed Republicans to push the country farther to the political right. Roys said she plans to be a "progressive beacon."
"Roys seems to be making a kind of Democratic tea party argument," said Mordecai Lee, UW-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democratic state lawmaker. "It will be interesting to see if that can overcome Pocan's establishment support."
Bomb thrower to deal maker
Pocan and Roys are the two biggest names in a field of four Democrats vying for the nomination. Also running are Matt Silverman, 30, a Madison lawyer and Dennis Hall, 63, a security consultant.
Silverman, who has raised just $16,900 through June 30, knows he is facing an uphill fight. He has tried to battle this through some unconventional campaigning. Last month he walked across the entire district, trying to meet people and get some name recognition. The trip was more than 500 miles long, crossing 60 communities, and took Silverman 30 days to complete.
Hall, who said he raised a little more than $11,000, though the Federal Election Commission shows no reports from him, has some political experience. He was a member of the Janesville City Council in the late 1970s and served as its president in 1980.
The winner in the traditionally Democratic district will face the lone Republican in the field, Chad Lee, a 29-year-old businessman who ran against Baldwin in 2010 and lost by a wide margin.
Since entering the race, Pocan has collected endorsements and money in equal measure, raising more than $724,000 through the end of March and landing the endorsements of 26 unions, two former governors (Govs. Tony Earl and Jim Doyle), nine state legislators and five current and former Madison mayors.
It's an interesting change for the one-time backbencher who was originally known more for throwing bombs than making deals.
The GOP was in control of the Assembly when Pocan was first elected in 1998. The young lawmaker quickly developed a reputation for his quick wit and sharp tongue.
"John Gard can't spell 'university' ... let alone fund it," Pocan said in 2005 of the then-Assembly speaker, a Republican from Peshtigo.
In 2007, he jokingly questioned whether state Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, was a female impersonator after a woman reportedly tried to use Suder's credit card in a gay bar. A few months later Pocan was paired with Suder to craft a compromise on electronic tracking of sex offenders. Turns out the two men worked well together.
"There are those who scream and holler and put out a news release, and there are those who get things done," he said in a recent interview. "I decided I wanted to be the kind that gets things done."
Though he may no longer lob political missiles, Pocan remains fiercely partisan, and doesn't hesitate to direct stinging rhetoric toward GOP opponents.
In March 2008, he took over as chief strategist for the Assembly Democrats and helped the party win a 52-46 margin in the Assembly — its first majority in 14 years. The party lost its majority two years later, but still his fellow Democrats laud him for his political acumen.
"The thing about Mark is not only has he had service, but he has had years of good service," said Corkey Custer, a member of the Dane County Democratic Party executive board and longtime party advocate.
Not as green as young
Roys has heard all of the talk of experience. She doesn't buy it. She points out that she is already older than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan when he was first elected, and only a few years younger than Baldwin was when she went to Washington, D.C.
"What matters to voters is whether you stand up for them," she said in an interview, echoing the sentiments of her recent campaign commercial, which seems to question Pocan's integrity.
Roys won't acknowledge the ad questions his integrity, but says in the 30-second clip, "Here's the kind of experience I don't have. I don't cave in when things get tough, and I don't make back-room deals."
Roys has hammered Pocan for taking PAC donations, essentially threw a clean campaign pledge back in his face and criticized his support for a pair of Gov. Scott Walker's economic development bills.
She said Pocan and the others missed a valuable moment to make a stand on those bills. She said this is becoming a trend with some in the party.
"Too long, a lot of Democrats have employed a play-it-safe strategy," she said.
She also tried to link Pocan to Republican power brokers Koch Industries.
Pocan had a fundraiser at the offices of Mehlman, Vogel & Castagnetti, a large Washington, D.C., law firm that represents dozens of corporations, including Koch. The firm also represents politicians on both sides of the political aisle.
"This was a Democratic event hosted by former Democratic staffers and other contributors with nothing to do with Koch Industries," said Dan McNally, Pocan's campaign manager.
McNally also pointed out that the event under scrutiny has hosted Democratic heavyweights Cindy Brown, former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, and Will Stone, former chief of staff for retired U.S. Rep. Dave Obey.
Crossing the line?
Roys' message has its appeal among some members of the party. She has raised more than $392,000 and has received the endorsements of five national women's organizations, three state legislators and two former Department of Natural Resources secretaries.
But some party advocates say she must tread lightly. It's one thing to fight hard during a campaign. The problem comes when the jabs cross the line.
Ron Biendseil, vice chairman of the Dane County Democratic Party, said that when he talks to people in the party, most seem happy with both candidates.
"People have their favorites, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of animosity one way or the other," he said. "I think as long as both of them fight fair, most people will be happy with either candidate."