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Western Wisconsin lawmaker eyes gubernatorial bid

Senate Democrat Kathleen Vinehout, whose district includes Pierce County, said she's actively exploring a possible run for governor in 2018. Mike Longaecker / Forum News Service

ALMA, Wis. — Wisconsin's state budget is slowly taking shape in Madison as lawmakers enter the session's home stretch.

But not for Kathleen Vinehout. She's already finalized the state's budget.

The Democratic senator from Alma spent last week in her district — which includes Pierce County — touting an alternative budget for Wisconsin that she drew up herself. With items such as free two-year college, more money for local governments and the removal of various tax credits, it stands in contrast to Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal.

That Vinehout assembled and is sharing her own vision for the state budget has done little to tamp down speculation that she will challenge Walker in 2018.

She confirmed the rumors last week in a Forum News Service interview, saying she is "actively exploring" the possibility of a gubernatorial run.

"There are a lot of people around the state that want me to run," Vinehout said.

If she does, she would compete to be the latest Democrat to run against Walker, who signaled at a May 11 GOP event that he'll be making his formal re-election announcement soon. He will be seeking his third term after first being elected in 2010 and fending off a recall election in 2012.

But a trend toward GOP support in Wisconsin's statewide elections — President Donald Trump joined U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in winning over Badger State voters in 2016 — doesn't give Vinehout pause as she considers a bid.

In fact, Vinehout, a state senator since 2006, thinks samples of Wisconsin voting data reveal a possible key to unlocking Democratic support around the state. Vinehout said she spent half a day talking with county clerks and election judges after the 2016 election and learned that in the north and west regions of the state, 10 percent were first-time voters and backed Trump.

In Whitehall, 24 percent voted for the first time "and I think the other side of this is important for Democrats," she said.

Roadmap to victory?

That, Vinehout said, could mean taking a page out of the GOP strategy that thwarted longstanding assumptions that parties shouldn't bother rousting citizens who don't vote.

"Obviously, that's wrong," said Vinehout, who runs a family dairy farm and holds a doctorate degree in health services research from St. Louis University.

She said Republicans "broke all the rules" in 2016 by going after that segment of the public.

Wisconsinites who usually vote Democratic in presidential elections mobilized last year for Hillary Clinton at a rate that Vinehout said was more reflective of turnout for an off-year election.

So the theory goes like this: Democratic candidates don't have to convince Trump voters to come around in order to win; they simply have to convince regular Democratic voters to get off the couch on Election Day.

"Democrats have to convince like-minded people that this campaign matters to them — that public policies the Democrats support are going to make a difference in their lives," she said.

And that's where Vinehout feels like she can gain a foothold. Rather than wooing wealthy Democratic donors in Madison, she said that time is better spent holding town halls where she can press the flesh and establish grassroots networks that could re-engage those voters who stayed home on Election Day.

"One of the things that's motivating me is to say that now is the time to run a campaign that's different and to show Democrats that a bottom-up campaign can be effective," she said.

Vinehout said that's the formula she's used since she was first elected to the Senate in 2006.

"People just don't see it," she said. "They just think I'm an anomaly out in western Wisconsin. How can I win when Scott Walker wins? How can I win when Trump wins? But I feel motivated to say 'Hey, there's a whole bunch of people that want to see this done. Let's prove to this state that we can really do it.'"

If she runs, it won't be her first effort. Vinehout made an unsuccessful bid for governor in the 2012 recall election, where she lost in the primary election to Tom Barrett. She was gearing up to challenge Walker again in 2014, but that effort never got off the ground after she was injured in a 2013 car crash.

Vinehout said she doesn't have a hard deadline for a decision on a 2018 gubernatorial run. She said she'll likely make up her mind after the budget has been finalized.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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