MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke said Thursday she hopes her keynote address at the state party convention will unify the effort to defeat Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.
Burke, in an interview with The Associated Press, said she wants to rally Democrats during her speech Friday night at the convention in Wisconsin Dells. She dismissed any talk that Democrats are divided as “hogwash,” even though she faces a primary challenge from longshot candidate state Rep. Brett Hulsey.
Burke is riding a wave of positive news, most notably a May poll by the Marquette University Law School that showed her tied with Walker. That was her best showing to date as she seeks to raise her profile against Walker, who survived a recall vote and drew national attention for effectively ending collective bargaining rights for most state workers.
“I’m excited. It will be the biggest audience, party audience, I have been in front of,” Burke said. “In some ways this is homecoming with a lot of folks I have spent time with across the state. It’s an opportunity to unify our effort and focus on November.”
Wisconsin Democrats, including office holders and operatives, said they are happy about Burke’s position in the race, her first for statewide office. Walker is a huge target this year as he faces re-election and eyes a run for president in 2016.
National liberal groups, including EMILY’s List and American Bridge 21st Century, a political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros, have jumped into the Wisconsin race on behalf of Burke. They hope to counter some of the spending from conservative groups backing Walker like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.
Democrats are buoyed by the poll results that not only show Walker and Burke tied five months from the election, but that Walker can’t get over 50 percent support. The latest Marquette poll showed them tied at 46 percent among registered voters.
“She’s doing fine,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. “Here’s the bottom line: The race is very close. Walker is not only not over 50 percent, he’s maybe stuck at 46, 47, 48 and that should be troubling to him.”
Walker has tried to frame the campaign as a choice between moving the state forward under his leadership or backward under policies advocated by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, whom Burke worked for as Commerce secretary between 2005 and 2007 just before the Great Recession hit. They’ve also attacked Burke, who is also a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive, as an out-of-touch millionaire who was at the company when jobs were outsourced to China.
Burke has said she wasn’t involved in the decision to move jobs overseas at the company started by her father in the 1970s.
“Voters will have a clear choice this election between bringing Wisconsin backward with Mary Burke or moving forward with Governor Walker and his proven reforms that have brought $2 billion in tax relief, more than 100,000 new jobs, and nearly 20,000 new businesses,” said Walker’s campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre.
While Burke has had one short advertising burst on television, she’s spent much of the early part of the campaign raising money and traveling the state. She remains largely unknown to voters. The Marquette poll said 51 percent still don’t know enough about her to form an opinion.
Burke has been working hard in Green Bay and Fox Valley area in northeast Wisconsin, said Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive, former state Assembly member and 2010 Democratic lieutenant governor nominee.
Burke had faced criticism from some liberals in the Democratic Party for some of her positions, including her refusal to promise to repeal the collective bargaining law Walker had championed.
Republicans have also tried to capitalize on that, with the party’s executive director Joe Fadness saying Thursday that “Burke still isn’t accepted by base Democrats because they see her for what she is: an out of touch 1-percenter who outsourced Wisconsin jobs overseas, avoided paying taxes several years, and refuses to take a firm position on the important issues in the race for governor.”
Hulsey is also expressing many of those views in his candidacy. He planned to attend the convention Friday, even though he’s not been given a speaking slot, and is considering handing out Communist Party hats to symbolize Trek jobs moving to China.
Maslin, who is not working for Burke, said any Democrat who has a problem with her candidacy needs to get over it.
“She’s tied,” Maslin said. “If they haven’t moved beyond it, get with the program, please.”