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Governor's race: Democrats try to differentiate themselves through priorities

The top nine Democrats running for governor say education or health care are top priorities, but differences have emerged in the other priorities they mention.


The Democrats vying to challenge Gov. Scott Walker share many similar priorities, but there are also notable differences emerging as they try to find a lane that will power them to the nomination.

At a Madison forum last month where candidates were asked to name their top three budget priorities, Mayor Paul Soglin was the only candidate who mentioned affordable housing, which he listed as his top priority.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and former Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn were the only ones who mentioned cutting taxes among their top three issues.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout was the only one who mentioned funding for the Department of Natural Resources, while Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell was the only one who cited transportation and infrastructure. (Later, in response to questions about their top three priorities from the Wisconsin State Journal, Rep. Dana Wachs mentioned transportation and Evers mentioned protecting natural resources.)

Wachs, former Rep. Kelda Roys and Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik emphasized various strategies for job creation, while former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe highlighted bringing broadband internet to the entire state.

All of the candidates mentioned education, health care or both among their top three priorities.

Even Walker, through a representative, said education and health care would be his top two priorities in the 2019-21 budget, followed by cutting taxes, which has been a top concern in all four of his previous budgets.

“Governor Walker is working to ensure a bright future for hard-working families,” campaign spokesman Nate Craft said. “His priorities on student success, stabilizing health care, and further reducing the tax burden will continue to deliver positive results and move our state forward.”

The emphasis on education and health care is not surprising given publicly available polls have suggested those topics are the top two issues for voters.

A January survey by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling asked 747 likely Democratic voters to name the most important issue for the next governor and listed five issues. The top response was health care (29 percent), followed by education (23 percent), environmental issues (17 percent), jobs and the economy (14 percent), transportation and road funding (9 percent) and something else (9 percent). The poll’s margin of error is +/-3.6 percentage points.

Education and health care also registered as the top two budget priorities in a Marquette Law School Poll in June of 800 registered voters, not just Democrats, with a margin of error of +/-4.5 percentage points.

Asked to pick from a list of issues in the state budget, 37 percent said K-12 education was most important, 25 percent said health coverage, 23 percent said road construction and maintenance, 5 percent said state aid to local government, 4 percent said prisons and criminal justice and 3 percent said the University of Wisconsin System.

“Walker has himself moved to shore up his standing on these issues with new K-12 spending in the budget and new health care initiatives this year,” said Marquette poll director Charles Franklin. “So it seems both parties can read the polls.”

Marina Dimitrijevic, executive director of the liberal Wisconsin Working Families Party, which has partnered with the Sen. Bernie Sanders-affiliated Our Wisconsin Revolution to host a series of candidate forums and identify top issues for Democratic voters, said preliminary results of a non-scientific online survey have found health care and environmental protection are the top two issues among more 500 respondents.

Dimitrijevic said with so many candidates lining up to run, voters are having a difficult time sifting and winnowing through the group to figure out which candidate they will ultimately support.

“What you’re seeing right now is every one of these candidates is trying to find their niche,” she said. “And each one of them has something to offer. They all speak to a different group.”

Priorities show strategy

Mike Wagner, a UW-Madison journalism professor who studies political messaging, said the priorities identified by the candidates reveal how they are trying to position themselves among the various Democratic voting constituencies.

With so many candidates, the winner could have a low percentage of the overall vote by solidifying support among a handful of active groups.

Evers, by citing middle class tax cuts, shows he is already looking ahead to courting general election voters, Wagner said. Others, such as Vinehout mentioning the DNR and Mitchell talking about roads and infrastructure, are appealing to specific subsets of primary voters — environmentalists and union workers.

Soglin, in emphasizing housing, is focusing on his experience as a mayor and the economic success of Madison, Wagner said.

“That’s a real challenge since the governor has spent so many years pitting Madison against the rest of the state,” Wagner said.

Soglin said in an interview housing is his top priority because without it families in the state can’t be successful.

Soglin said the state needs to establish its own low-income housing tax credit program available to all cities. Most developers rely on federal credits administered through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. He also wants to re-establish a Department of Development that would advise smaller communities on where to build affordable housing as part of his housing-first focus.

Evers is calling for targeting tax cuts at the middle class, specifically in the form of tax credits to help families with childcare costs. Flynn would eliminate a tax credit to manufacturers and farmers to reduce taxes on middle- and low-income people, including property taxes.

McCabe is proposing “debt-free education” by lowering college tuition so that students can cover costs by working while in school, increasing state funding for higher education and paying for it with higher taxes on the wealthy and taxes on legalized marijuana. The extra revenue would also support a priority that others didn’t list in the top three — boosting broadband internet funding by as much as $200 million a year, a concern in almost every county in the state.

Vinehout, who drafted her own alternative budget to Walker’s proposal, wants to offer free tuition at technical colleges and two-year University of Wisconsin System campuses and pay for it by repealing the manufacturing portion of a tax credit that mostly eliminates tax liability for manufacturers and farmers.

Gronik, Roys and Wachs all want to spur business growth, but with slightly different focuses. Wachs mentioned supporting minority and women-owned businesses, Roys emphasized making the state a leader in clean energy jobs, and Gronik noted that while others plan to remove funding from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., he wants to convert it into the Wisconsin Jobs Department.

Mitchell is one of several candidates calling for making Badger Care available to all residents. He also called for making Wisconsin’s roads No. 1 in the nation.

Many of the candidates’ proposals would require new funding in the state budget. Asked where the money would come from to fund their priorities, the Democrats offered many overlapping ideas:

  • Reduce funding for WEDC. Some also mentioned looking for ways to cancel or scale back the $3 billion tax credit contract with Foxconn, which is building a $10 billion facility in Racine County.
  • Accept a federal Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act that Walker has rejected because of concerns the money will be pulled back in the future.
  • Eliminate a tax credit to manufacturers and farmers that wipes out most of their income tax liability.
  • Reduce the prison population, partly by decriminalizing marijuana possession.
  • Ending the private school voucher program and a recently adopted tax deduction for private school tuition.
  • Raise transportation fund revenues in order to return money Walker has taken from the general fund to pay for roads, more than $1 billion over eight years.

Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.