By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
You get the feeling this wasn’t how they drew it up.
The likeliest scenario for the Democratic primary in Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District was that the race would go to the candidate who hated Gov. Scott Walker most.
As primary strategies go, it made sense. The 2nd District, comprising Madison and regions just southwest of the capital, boasts the highest concentration of state employees and Democratic voters in Wisconsin.
And for a while, both leading candidates — state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison — touted their anti-Walker bona fides and their support for unions, public and private. If elected to Congress, they promised, they would do all they could to help overturn Act 10 from a tiny desk on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The problem? When you have two candidates pledging more or less the same thing in a primary in which the winner is all but certain to be elected in November, other factors become more important. Among those are personality, experience, and legislative effectiveness. Pocan’s 14 years in the state Legislature versus Roys’s four made Pocan the overwhelming favorite.
Trying to beat the odds, Roys went on the attack last week. She tried tying Pocan to Walker on the basis of his votes for two pro-jobs measures during a January 2011 special session of the Legislature. Pocan was hardly alone. Those bills passed the Assembly with large — and identical — bipartisan margins of 82-12 and 82-12.
The result was a poorly researched and badly produced ad. It so alienated her sole legislative Dane County supporter that he rescinded his endorsement and drove other potential Roys allies off the sidelines and into the Pocan camp.
On Monday, as if to confirm the debacle, Pocan’s campaign released an internal poll showing they were now leading by 29 points with two weeks left to go until the Aug. 14 party primary.
The old axiom in campaigns is that “you have to go negative” if you’re behind because “negative works.” But there’s another — and converse — axiom: “Play with fire, expect to get burned.”
And the burns don’t always heal quickly. Now running for the U.S. Senate, former Republican 1st District U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann is still dealing with blowback from his 2010 primary gubernatorial run against Scott Walker. Despite his current support from such out-of-state groups as the Club for Growth, Neumann has found it hard to find in-state support from Republican voters who remember what they regard as his underhanded tactics in 2010.
Roys very well could be on her way to a similar kind of reputation, especially if she doesn’t play her cards right. Slash-and-burn tactics during a primary rarely have been a successful political career move, and most politicians with higher political aspirations don’t take the nuclear option.
Sometimes, confronted with nuclear tactics and surrender, the smart candidate surrenders. In 2006, then-County Executive Scott Walker dropped his Republican primary bid for governor, leaving the field to former 8th District U.S. Rep. Mark Green. (Full disclosure: I was a field director on Green’s campaign, joining the campaign months after Walker left.)
One could say it worked out well for Walker.
The Roys campaign must answer a question — quickly: Do they lose gracefully or do they risk turning their candidate into a pariah in Wisconsin’s progressive political circles. Politicians of all stripes never know if the current campaign will be their last one, but few doubt their previous deeds may come back to bite them.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.