In The News
Speculators rush in as Kohl steps aside
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted May 16, 2011
The grace note was provided early May 13 by President Obama, who thanked Herb Kohl for 23 years of service in the Senate, particularly his business acumen and for improving the lives of seniors and children.
For the media and many politicos, there were no grace notes -- just unseemly haste to turn the departure of "Nobody's Senator but Yours" into "Anyone's Senator We Can Sell the Public."
Kohl is both admired for avoiding the inflamed zealotry of today's politics and criticized by liberals as too cautious in his ideology, but it was not his style to wade loudly into controversial battles -- perhaps because his longtime Senate sidekick was maverick Russ Feingold, willing to take the heat and limelight. With a polar opposite in business philosophy now his senate colleague, Kohl has been under pressure to take on more directly the tough battles. No wonder at 76 he decided to depart this unappealing toxic landscape.
But despite what Republicans say now, it was a clear choice of energy not danger. Few in either camp thought he would be seriously challenged given his wealth and his skillful nonpartisanship.
Now both camps are calculating feverishly, as are pundits.
Wisconsin has become key to Democrats to make a statement and change the nation. A piece at a time they can reverse what happened in November 2010, even if Republicans succeed in devising delay (hoping public anger will fade if they can stall the July recall elections the Democrats want until the fall). They're already suggesting Kohl's decision, opening up another race for them, will spur that fade of opposition energy.
Democrats suggest Kohl's announcement will deepen the current resolve while providing access to new resources to replenish spending. But they concede that what happens in the immediate races will determine what unfolds.
For one thing, money is on the GOP side. It's not that their candidates are richer – it’s that their third-party campaign networks are deeper. To change the state before November 2012, the Democrats will have to spend big -- and even bigger if they add Gov. Walker as soon as they legally can (January 2012). And meanwhile there all those likely replacement elections.
While Kohl's departure opens a window the GOP did not have, they are already running around in confusion about how to proceed – especially not knowing the opponent. Many of the lobbed GOP names have dismal track records even within the Republican Party, including former US representatives Mark Neumann and Mark Green. Also in the chat are former state senator Ted Kanavas and former candidate Tim Michels, but not as blog-active as perennial hope that Tommy Thompson will be tempted back into politics. But would the bulk of Wisconsin voters ever forgive Thompson's Hamlet tendencies and weathervane flips in the spinning GOP wind? (For or against high speed trains? Stem cell research? Health care?) He's become a joke.
Some GOP insiders are pushing for a law and order figure, always easier to sell to conservative voters. That raises their interest in an obedient political hack like Atty. Gen. J.B. Van Hollen, which would also take him out of the recall hurricane eye. Others are lashing about, suggesting Republicans unknown except as water boys to Walker's policies, such as the Fitzgeralds.
Curiously enough, the once most likely name is now damaged goods. US Rep. Paul Ryan was such a big deal in US House politics that fellow Republicans signed aboard his plan to replace Medicare with ineffectual coupons, and now are paying a devastating political price.
That depresses both his internal reputation and the national coffers he could once draw on. So saddled is Ryan with the "Mr. Anti-Medicare" image that he is expected in the next few days to decline the Kohl race, and he has his hands full in District 1, where an articulate, well-heeled Kenosha supervisor Robert Zerban is champing to take him on.
Some Republicans are actually pushing Walker forward for the Kohl race in a crazy canny move to chill recall fever by forming an "exploratory committee" to allow him to tease and then opt out months later.
There are also Democrats weighing -- foolishly in my analysis -- delaying a Walker recall until November 2012 when they envision Obama for president and some Democrat for Kohl's seat as well as some Democrat for governor on the ballot along with all the Assembly seats and half the state Senate seats. It would compress money into one big swoop, to be sure, but it also suggests that the damage Walker can do staying in office that long can't be all that bad -- and that’s truly foolish.
Frankly all anyone can predict is that the layout 18 months from will be a lot worse for the Republicans if a number of recalls have proven successful.
Democrats also have strong experienced candidates but much the same problems of track record and over-familiarity. Are these candidates’ positive negatives or negative positives?
Some names hot in the Democratic pool are far more outspokenly progressive than Kohl, hence unlikely to play to the middle, but that may actually reflect where Wisconsin is heading. They range from Madison Rep. Tammy Baldwin to outspoken former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton to newly famous Assembly minority leader Peter Barca. Some experienced administrators and good fund-raisers lie in the wings, from US Rep. Ron Kind to Dane County's Kathleen Falk to even former Gov. Jim Doyle.
But the main names are Tom Barrett and Russ Feingold. Barrett has the inside track on recall thinking if buyer's remorse puts Walker under the recall gun -- and Barrett offered a tantalizing piece of mathematics at the April 30 state Democratic Party dinner when he told the crowd he would be back in the saddle "in nine months."
That works out to January 2012, either to run again as Milwaukee mayor in April or to take on Walker in a recall election. And now he finds himself talked about for the Kohl race.
But most talk is about a true maverick even the Democrat establishment knows will go his own way. That reputation for independence is both the appeal and the difficulty with Feingold, who is being actively recruited. He has to decide if 2010 was a fluke and whether the runaway national sense of loss in his defeat is now shared within Wisconsin borders.
All this instantly adds to the state's political turmoil. But that doesn't mean instant decisions. Some candidates may jump right in hoping to deflate any competition, but the biggest guns will probably take their time to assess - and watch what the more immediate special races reveal about the mood of the electorate.