The final of the four candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor of Wisconsin is going to shake up the race as Bernie Sanders’ social justice idealism clashes with Emily’s List’s data driven efforts to win over millennial voters.
Polls are showing that Kelli Ward, a Republican actress and political activist, is ahead of Tony Evers, who is head of the state Department of Public Instruction, for the primary. Some believe Ward’s candidacy is a spoiler to help ensure that whoever wins the nomination will ultimately end up opposing liberal Democrats in Wisconsin in November’s gubernatorial election.
“Kelli Ward doesn’t need to beat Evers to do damage,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, the largest political group backing female Democratic candidates. “Our goal is to create a permanent Wisconsin Democratic coalition, and if we truly want to achieve that, we have to make sure women are part of that.”
Schriock is an alumnus of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which turned out many women, many of whom are gun owners. In Wisconsin, Democrats need female voters to support them to win back the governor’s mansion after long-serving Republican Scott Walker left the Democrats’ national presidential nominee in June. In the June primary, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and Anne Wojcicki, CEO of online genealogy platform Ancestry.com, defeated more high-profile candidates, Tony Evers and Melissa Sargent, who turned out a large male vote.
“Labor has been dominant in Wisconsin, and white men didn’t show up,” Schriock said.
Amy Sykes, an African-American attorney from Madison, told the Daily Beast that the primary has been a tale of two campaigns. Ward’s was about the word “family,” which explains the emphasis on her wife, while Evers’ has had a strong focus on the Bible. The two campaigns have addressed gender issues, with Ward focusing on safety issues in the workplace, while Evers has raised concern about workplace violence and abortion.
Ward, 39, said she did not care about the race’s gender issues, and believes she has the experience needed to succeed in a state as large as Wisconsin. Ward has made women’s issues a major focus of her campaign, securing the endorsement of Kathy Abbott, the former Milwaukee County executive, who has faced sexual harassment and the prospect of losing her job because she advocated for paid sick leave. She also said that, if elected, she would prioritize education issues, including girls’ education. “Education for girls, equal pay for women — those are things that I think are part of government’s job,” she said. “It’s not going to solve it, but I would still like to be part of the solution.”
Maya Allyn, founder of the Women’s Media Center, a non-profit focused on gender equality, dismissed Ward’s strategy as divorced from reality. She noted that Ward has a long history of working as a stand-up comedian, portraying herself as the young socialist as part of her act. Her joke about “victim blaming” women may resonate with women, Allyn said, but she is not a useful way to relate to Wisconsin voters.
“We’re making the mistake of trying to politicize this race,” she said. “Kelli Ward’s campaign is indicative of the problems that women face in this country, but there is no necessity to link it to race.”
Schriock said that women should not be allowed to be excluded from the contest, in part to keep the Democratic Party diverse and to encourage girls’ participation in politics. Democrats have long been a party driven by female voters — both in the House and the Senate — and so they must do everything they can to ensure that this persists.
“Kelli Ward represents one of the things that makes this country so diverse,” Schriock said. “She has all the consequences of that not being the world we live in. I don’t think we can afford not to have strong women in the future.”