MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Democrats have sometimes struggled to field candidates against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. This time around, they find themselves with the opposite problem.
At least 18 Democrats have declared they’re running or are considering the race against Walker next year. They include a mayor, multiple state lawmakers, numerous former officeholders, a recent college graduate, a salon owner and a prosecutor.
“There’s not going to be a Democrat left in the state who’s not running for governor,” Walker quipped recently when asked about the race.
Democrats say the rush of candidates comes in part because there is no heir apparent in the party to take on Walker. But they also say he’s vulnerable, pointing to approval ratings that have been below 50 percent since early 2014.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity and people know it,” said Joe Zepecki, a strategist who worked for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke in 2014. “Scott Walker benefited from wave election years in 2010 and 2014. It does not mean he’s immune if in 2018 the wave is moving in the other direction.”
Walker, who said this week he will announce his intentions in the next month or two, said he’s more optimistic about Wisconsin’s future than ever. Unemployment is at a 17-year low and his re-election hopes got a boost with global electronics giant Foxconn Technology Group’s plans to invest $10 billion and hire up to 13,000 workers at a display panel manufacturing campus in southeastern Wisconsin.
Democrats have assailed the deal — which comes with $3 billion in tax incentives — as corporate welfare that threatens the environment. They’ve also questioned whether Foxconn will come through with the jobs, a question that won’t be answered until well beyond the 2018 election.
GOP spokesman Alec Zimmerman said Democrats are fooling themselves and pointed out that many prominent Democrats have passed on challenging Walker.
“Wisconsin Democrats are offering nothing more than the same failed policies of yesterday, while Republicans will continue fighting for reforms that deliver results for hard-working Wisconsin families,” he said.
The flood of lesser-known Democratic candidates comes after, or perhaps as a result of, several more prominent potential candidates taking a pass. Those skipping the race include U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, of La Crosse, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
Those eyeing a run in 2018 include a longtime mayor of Madison who once gave the key to the city to Fidel Castro; a recent Stanford University graduate who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California before returning home to Wisconsin; a salon owner with no political experience; and a former state representative who was ridiculed after threatening to hand out white hoods at the state Republican Party convention.
That former lawmaker, Brett Hulsey, said he hopes for a large field of Democratic candidates.
“Give people choices,” he said in a text message. “Much better than picking a weak candidate.”
Democrats’ best hope may rest with the one candidate who’s never run as a Democrat before: the officially nonpartisan state schools superintendent who has long had the backing of liberals, unions and others Walker has spent his political career taking on and defeating.
Tony Evers, the only Democrat in the race who has already won a statewide election, said a crowded primary “is good for democracy.”
“People get to look at a wide variety of candidates,” he said. “Frankly I’m not concerned about whether there’s a primary or not. My goal is to beat Scott Walker. That’s where I’m spending my time and effort, and frankly resources, to make that happen.”
Evers is one of five Democrats who have officially declared they are running. Only one of the other four, state Rep. Dana Wachs, has won election before. He’s served in the Legislature since 2013, representing Eau Claire.
The other declared candidates are Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, recent Stanford graduate Bob Harlow and salon owner and political newcomer Michele Doolan.
The largest Democratic field in the past 20 years was five in a 2012 recall targeting Walker. Three ran in 2002 when then-Attorney General Jim Doyle won with 38 percent of the vote and went on to serve two terms as governor.
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP