Wisconsin State Capitol, State Journal file photo

Wisconsin's State Capitol.

JOSEPH W. JACKSON III — State Journal archives

Wisconsin Democrats, mulling how to move forward from recent electoral defeats, agree on at least one point heading into their state convention this weekend: the stakes may never be higher in picking the party’s new leader.

“We’re at a critical juncture in the future of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin,” said Stephen Smith, a former state lawmaker and one of five candidates for party chairperson.

Democratic delegates will elect the new chairperson Saturday at the state party convention in Milwaukee. Mike Tate, who has been party chairman since 2009, isn’t seeking another term.

The candidates to succeed Tate include businesswomanMartha Laning, Democratic National Committee member Jason Rae, former state lawmaker and businessman Stephen Smith and former state party chairman Joe Wineke. Former state lawmaker Jeff Smith announced Thursday that he is urging his supporters to vote for Laning.

The winner will be selected by a plurality vote of party delegates at the convention.

The chairperson plays a crucial fundraising role and serves as the party’s public face. Candidates and party activists agree that Tate’s departure provides a chance to regroup from some disheartening defeats in recent state elections.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker has won three statewide elections since 2010, and Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature since then.

That enabled Republicans to pass legislation such as the Act 10 and Right to Work laws that fundamentally altered Wisconsin’s political landscape.

The state party chairperson race “gives us a pretty good opportunity to just start fresh,” said Michael Basford, chairman of the Democratic Party of Dane County. “We need to just kind of step back, hit the reset switch and start building some momentum for the party going into some very important elections next year.”

The next chairperson must contend with the declining role of political parties in the face of newly potent independent groups that sprung up after recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Despite that, Tate says interest is strong in the race. He predicted between 1,300 and 1,900 delegates will vote at the convention, which he said was the most since at least 2005.

Tate said the intense interest shows Wisconsin Democrats are mobilized by recent events.

“This is a good sign of how engaged and activated Democrats are in the face of everything that’s happened in the last six years,” Tate said.

Here’s a look at the five candidates:

Martha Laning

Laning is a Sheboygan businesswoman and community activist who’s billing herself as a fresh face for Wisconsin Democrats.

It was only last year that Laning became a dues-paying member of the state party. But she says she considered herself a Democrat and volunteered for party campaigns long before that.

In fact, Laning said her outsider status could be an asset as chairwoman.

“There are great Democrats in this party that have been trying their hardest,” Laning said. “But I think it’s nice to have a different perspective.”

Laning worked in finance for Target Corp. and led an effort to raise $4.6 million to build a community center in Sheboygan. She ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2014.

Laning says she wants to bring to the party a focus on what she describes as “values-driven messaging.” That means focusing on how policies have real-life impacts in Wisconsin communities, she said.

Supporters of Laning include Mary Lang Sollinger, a former state party finance director from Madison who launched her own candidacy for the chairperson post, only to drop out and back Laning.

Jason Rae

At age 28, Jason Rae already has deep ties to the state party.

Rae says he began attending local party meetings as a teenager in his hometown of Rice Lake.

In 2004, at age 17, Rae was elected the youngest-ever Democratic National Committee member. He has held that post since. Rae also is founder and executive director of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Rae, of Milwaukee, is a senior associate at Nation Consulting, a political consulting company. His ties there have caused some in the party — including state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, a Laning supporter — to label Rae the corporate candidate, as opposed to one from the party’s grassroots.

But Rae says he’s focused on laying out a positive vision for how he would lead the party. He said he’s the only candidate to publicly release a detailed plan for how he would do so.

“For far too long, we’ve become the anti-Scott Walker party. I don’t think that’s good for us,” Rae said.

Rae added that delegates should pick a chairperson who understands the party well.

“I think it’s imperative to have a chair who can start on day one,” Rae said.

Rae’s campaign has a long list of supporters that includes former Congressman Dave Obey.

Jeff Smith

Smith said Thursday he will urge his supporters to back Laning.

He said the next party chairperson should have the support of a majority, instead of just a plurality, of delegates. He predicted a coalition of his and Laning’s delegates would give her that majority on Saturday.

“I am excited for the potential that a new leadership style will bring to our party and to working with a team dedicated toward a true progressive Wisconsin,” Smith said in a statement.

Smith, of Brunswick, served in the state Assembly from 2007 to 2010.

Stephen Smith

Smith says it’s time for Democrats to think local and spread their focus statewide, not just in the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee.

Smith, of Shell Lake, is a former one-term state lawmaker and former Barron County board member. He’s also a businessman who operated a family school bus company and was part owner of a home-improvement center in Rice Lake.

Smith says Democrats need to compete better in rural areas. He says he would work to funnel more power and resources to county-level party officials and push for more Democrats to run in local elections.

“We have to be competitive statewide,” Smith said.

In 2016, Smith wants the state party to focus on gaining ground in the Legislature, especially in the Senate.

Joe Wineke

Wineke has a simple message for delegates: I’ve done this job before, and the results speak for themselves.

Wineke, of Verona, was party chairman from 2005 to 2009, when he chose not to seek another term. Before that he served in the state Legislature for 16 years.

Under his leadership, Wineke notes that Wisconsin Democrats fared well. They won back both houses of the Legislature from Republicans, re-elected former Gov. Jim Doyle and captured a U.S. congressional seat in northeast Wisconsin.

Wineke said he hadn’t planned to seek a return to party leadership until seeing the results from Election Night 2014, when Walker won a second term.

Wineke said the party must be more willing to play offense with its messaging and do better at recruiting candidates, especially for legislative seats for which GOP incumbents were not contested in recent years.

“I’m not doing this for money. I’m not doing this for ego. I’m doing this because I’ve been a proud Democrat who thinks we’re making huge mistakes,” Wineke said.

Wineke also has made a pledge that’s a central part of his campaign: If Wisconsin Democrats don’t gain seats in the Legislature and defeat GOP U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016, Wineke says he won’t seek another term as party chairman.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.