Kathleen Falk and Mahlon Mitchell formed a striking pair earlier this month, marching shoulder-to-shoulder to the Government Accountability Board with organizers filing paperwork for the recall of Gov. Scott Walker.
One, a former Dane County executive and longtime Democratic politician; the other, a young firefighter and charismatic union official who moved crowds during massive protests against the governor earlier this year.
The potential of such a pairing was not lost on Democratic insiders, who now find themselves hurtling toward a gubernatorial recall with one big question unanswered: Who might run against Walker?
Recall organizers in their first week said they collected more than 105,000 of the 540,208 needed to trigger an election. So, chances are pretty good that, come the middle of January, Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch will find themselves in a fight for their political lives.
But despite Walker's low poll numbers, and the fervor demonstrated by his opponents in the past several months, experts said unseating the once-formidable governor will come down to whether Democrats can offer a strong alternative.
The party's chances took a hit when former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold announced he would stay out of the race — a decision he reiterated earlier this month. The 18-year Senate veteran may have lost his last race, but he is historically popular and, according to a recent study from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, is the only Democrat who beats Walker in a head-to-head matchup.
His absense leaves Falk, 60, who has run for governor before, and Mitchell, 34, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, as two of a diverse group of potential candidates that include U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, U.S. Rep. Dave Obey of Wausau, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
At stake is more than just the recall election. Pick the wrong candidate and the Democrats run the risk of not only re-energizing the state GOP but also weakening President Barack Obama's chances to take Wisconsin in his re-election bid next year.
"If they end up scheduling that recall to run in November, you better believe the White House will demand they field a strong candidate," said Larry Sabato, a national political expert and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "You can't put just anyone up there against a standing governor and expect them to win. That's not going to happen."
Contenders or pretenders
Democrats have said little publicly about who they hope to put up against Walker, focusing instead on getting signatures on recall petitions.
"We don't have a candidate right now, and we are very comfortable with that," Party Chairman Mike Tate said.
At this point, Tate said, recall organizers don't want to provide Walker a target. Doing that would allow the governor to shift the focus away from his policies toward his opponent, he said.
Still, the loss of Feingold has created a vacuum. In his place are a collection of candidates who bring some obvious strengths and concerning weaknesses:
• Kohl, 76, and Obey, 73, have statewide name recognition and years of experience. But both men are past their prime political years. It is unclear if they have the desire, or vigor, to pose a real threat to Walker. Both have remained silent on running, but Obey has started appearing at recall events and could be entertaining a candidacy.
• Kind, 48, is young enough and after serving 14 years in Washington, D.C., has the statewide name recognition to be a viable candidate. But so far the congressman has refused comment. Party insiders assume he will continue serving in his current role.
• Erpenbach, 50, and Barca, 56, are two of the more prominent Democratic heroes of the fight over Walker's collective bargaining law this spring. Erpenbach left the state with the other Democratic senators to forestall a vote on the measure and became a late-night talk show darling. Barca stayed behind to hammer the governor and Republican leadership and was probably the most consistent voice of opposition. Neither man has much statewide recognition, so any attempt to unseat Walker could be an uphill battle. Barca has not addressed the issue, but Erpenbach said he has been encouraged to run. "I'm definitely thinking about it," he said.
• Barrett would seem a logical choice. He lost to Walker in the 2010 election, so he has statewide name recognition and a built-in base of support. But the Milwaukee mayor seemed a hesitant candidate the first time around and there are no public signs he's warming to the idea of a second run.
• Falk has a lot of experience, having served 14 years as the Dane County executive. She has also run statewide campaigns before, for governor and attorney general. But Falk is closely associated with Dane County and Madison, which can be hard to overcome in a statewide race. She has attended recall events across the state and seems to be positioning herself for a run. Spokeswoman Melissa Mulliken said Falk will consider running "when the petition drive is successful," adding that people are encouraging her to do so.
• Mitchell is the one wild card so far. A 14-year veteran of the Madison Fire Department, he has no real political experience or statewide name recognition. He came to the public's attention during the collective bargaining controversy, attending protests and giving speeches. But as a newcomer, Mitchell has none of the baggage that could weigh down established politicians. "People are looking for something fresh," he said. "I think that's why they are considering me." Mitchell said he is seriously considering a run for either governor or lieutenant governor. "I am open to whatever role I can play to help this state move forward," he said.
Mordecai Lee, UW-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democratic state lawmaker, said he has seen the list of potential candidates and he is still waiting for a really strong name to emerge.
To unseat Walker, it will be important for Democrats to find a candidate with "low negatives," Lee said.
"The Democrats will need a candidate that Walker will have a tough time attacking," he said. "They need to keep the focus on the governor's unpopular moves, not on something negative about their own candidate."
Lee said he thinks state Sens. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, would be good candidates. Both are experienced moderates from outside of Madison and Milwaukee. But neither man is considering a run.
Holperin said the money required in such a short amount of time limits the playing field.
"But I think we have a deep bench of candidates," he said. "By the time it's over, we will have the right one."