Mythbusters: Vinehout Edition

Well before State Senator Kathleen Vinehout announced the formation of an exploratory committee to consider running for governor of Wisconsin, her most ardent fans, (Dane County liberals in particular, it seems), have been seen commenting frequently on social media that Vinehout is the perfect candidate to take on Scott Walker. Why? Two reasons are commonly cited. 1. Because she’s from outside of the Madison/Milwaukee blue bubble. 2. Because she knows how to win in rural, republican leaning Wisconsin. The first reason is obviously true, but there’s no evidence to support the second.

Vinehout’s Senate district, the 31st, has been held by a democrat for 38 of the last 42 years. If the 31st senate district is “republican leaning” then both the GOP as well as district voters seem unaware of it.

Democrat Thomas Harnisch represented the 31st from 1975-1983. Harnisch was one of the people who helped establish the Robert M La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW Madison.

Democrat Rod Moen held the seat from 1983 until 2002 when he was narrowly defeated, ( roughly 550 votes ), by Eau Claire firefighter Ron Brown, who successfully tied Moen to the caucus scandal and former Democratic Senate Majority leader Chuck Chvala.

Vinehout won the seat back in 2006, the first of two major consecutive Democratic Party wave elections, and has held it since. Without a doubt Vinehout’s most notable electoral accomplishment is having held onto her seat during the 2010 Tea Party shellacking that took down so many other democrats statewide, but the victory comes with a caveat. Her opponent, Ed Thompson, younger brother of former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, announced two months before the 2010 election that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had only six months to live. Vinehout went on to defeat Thompson by 440 votes.

Is Vinehout a great policy wonk? Without a doubt. She has a PhD and taught Health Services Administration and Women’s Studies for a decade at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Does she live outside of the Madison/Milwaukee blue bubble? You bet. She lives on a farm in western Wisconsin. Does she know how to win in rural, red, republican leaning Wisconsin? We don’t know. Her supporters claim she does, and Vinehout seems content to let that myth flourish, but there’s no evidence to support it.


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27 thoughts on “Mythbusters: Vinehout Edition

  1. Kathleen would be a strong candidate. Can she defeat Walker? It would take a strategy to get people to the polls. No easy task in this negative environment. It would be a campaign of contrasts. The biggest one of course is education. She has a Phd and Walker is a high school grad.
    Mmmmm. Who would you want leading the way?

  2. Senator Vinehout is more than educated; she is sensitive, she is well informed, she is competent, but above all she is a moral person in the opinion of an 86 year old former monastic.

    I first met her in a community dinner line at a Jackson Electric event some years ago. She also has been a frequent visitor to our Jackson County Democratic party meetings.

    Wisconsin would be well served, indeed fortunate, to have Kathleen Vinehout lead us!

  3. Joe and Duane,

    The primary point of this piece is to dispel what has become a bit of Vinehout folklore that is popular in certain progressive circles, i.e. Vinehout is some sort of campaign whiz, a democrat who knows how to win in red, rural Wisconsin. That’s a myth. It’s been busted.

    1. Steve et al, I respectfully disagree.

      If you wish to employ and or enjoy “Vinehout folklore”, or her as “some sort of “campaign whiz” or other fellow diatribes, it is no wonder we are where we are today.

      Guys and gals,let’s get togeather!

    2. How can you say a ‘myth has been busted’ when she has never lost an election? And more, what’s your point in claiming that?
      In Pepin and Buffalo counties, we know the challenges of communicating with rural voters and that cookbook consulting approaches won’t work. Kathleen has shown the dedication and creativity to make those connections.
      If you have issues of policy or another favorite candidate, make that argument but don’t just peddle bullshit.

  4. Whether the 31st district prefers her to any GOP candidate is moot. A governor competes in all 33 districts, including the ones that went for Obama or Clinton and the rural ones that didn’t. I don’t recall hearing anything about Scott Walker’s dairy farm.

  5. I would hardly say that the myth has been dispelled. The three Assembly representatives covered by Kathleen Vinehout’s district are not Democrats; rather two of them are Republican. Sen. Vinehout also won in 2014 — you forgot to mention that. And in that year, she won in Jackson County and Trempeleau County, as well as in Eau Claire County. These are not urban strongholds. (Oh, who was elected governor that year? Yeah, that guy. He won Trempeleau and Jackson Counties.)

    Moreover, Kathleen does not just “live on a farm” — she has been a dairy farmer and still raises feed grains. She hunts on her own land, and gets rural life because that is her life. That understanding comes through when she talks with (not “to”) her constituents and to those she meets throughout the state.

    1. Yes, she won in 2014, in a senate district that has been reliable blue for 38 of the last 42 years. Vinehout is primarily an academic from Illinois. I grew up in farm country, my parents were both raised on family farms, and I’ve lived in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota my entire life. I can guarantee you that when a pair of university professors from out of state plunk down a wad of cash for a couple of hundred acres of prime farm land, buy 50 milk cows, and then run for state senate only ten years later, we don’t call them farmers. We don’t call them anything bad, but we don’t call them farmers.

      1. If George Bush could be considered a Rancher, Kathleen Vinehout is definitely a Farmer. I think a Democratic candidate can win the governors race in Wisconsin but we need to talk about how restoring collective bargaining rights and health care for all will improve the lives of individual voters.

        1. AJ,

          You made my point about Bush/Vinehout. Like Molly Ivins said about Bush” all hat and no cattle “.

  6. I met Kathleen Vinehout during that 2006 campaign and she did indeed win against all odds in a rural conservative district. Her opponent had 3 to 4 times as much money and was a likeable guy. Until the Democrats have someone qualified and willing to run, they would be best served to stop eating their own.

    1. You are right,Tim. If you run as a Republican, every one rallies around you. Run as a Democrat and be ready to be picked apart by your own Party. Why? I am still trying to figure it out.

  7. At this point I would vote for a blue corpse if it could win.Somebody needs to step up and show that they have the demographic appeal and the chops to win. A PHD and moral high ground would be wonderful but Walker didn’t need those qualities to win. We need a winner and we need them now. We can finesse it after we get in the door. If she wants the job, it won’t be her academics and her niceness that put her over the top. We need to fight fire with Fire.

  8. I have heard repeatedly from very conservative Walker supporters over the course of the last two elections, they would vote for Vinehout over Walker. Why? Because he has gutted rutted rural schools and Kathleen has been seen as a strong advocate for not only responsible spending, but strong schools. Can she win in rural areas….I have been in at least a dozen conversations in the past two months with rural Republican voters. They are really tired of the worst roads in the country, dwindling support for rural schools, dislike for funding private schools, and lack of jobs in rural areas. This is why she can win in rural WI.

  9. There’s no *proof* she can win statewide because she’s never *run* statewide. By the same token there’s no *proof* she can’t win statewide. Your argument isn’t “mythbusting”, it’s an assertion of clairvoyance.

    1. Sen. Vinehout ran in a statewide Democratic primary for governor in 2012. She got 4.02% of the vote.

  10. While we can talk about immediate WI prospects for Vinehout until her 50 cows come home, without the support of the DPW actually working with state citizens, and with no US Dem Senators yet introducing single payer, Medicare for all to drive state Dem turnout, fat chances for anyone.

    Baldwin for example while claiming she’d “likely,” support single payer if someone introduced a bill, here US Senate Democrats urge supporting their prime campaign donors, “stabilizing,” medical insurers and protecting ObamaCare from destruction. Where is the Dems “Medicare for All” bill Bernie, Tammy? They can’t attempt to be pushing both saving the few good parts of O-Care and introducing national health care at the same time?

    The other part of the story is beautifully described here. Read it for yourselves. From just south of the WI border.

    1. A little off topic and painfully abstract. Here on the ‘west coast’ of Wisconsin, Health Traditions, one of only two insurers on the exchange, just sent out letters to all individual subscribers and to medicare supplement subscribers informing them that they will no longer be providing coverage as of the first of the year. To make that less abstract, one of the people receiving that letter was a good friend who recently survived a serious battle with cancer. I think single payer is the most rational solution, but no rational person could expect it to be put in place by the first of next year. So Tammy Baldwin’s efforts to solve the market problems in the interim is compassionate and necessary.

      1. Fine, that’s what I just said above, but that doesn’t preclude introducing single payer, Medicare for All, right now, except that the national Dems simply will not do it, i.e. don’t hold your breath. No rational political party claiming to represent anyone other than the uber-wealthy would neglect introducing it immediately.

        National Dem leadership is content with leaving the rest of us living with the status quo of 30 some GOP ruled states in voter suppressed, gerrymandered hell and all the irreversible negative consequences that comes with it.

        1. Is my personal take on this above the intellectual capabilities of WI citizens? Looking for feedback here and I’ii ask nicely, saying please.

  11. Oh my goodness Steve. The primary isn’t even in the headlights and you are already tearing down possible candidates. I say elevate the discussion and discuss what the candidates offer in terms policy, programs and ability to get their message across to the voters. The candidate best able to make a compelling argument to the people and that has a trasnparent record of supporting said policies and programs is the most likely candidate to succeed against dark money and false advertising. Oh, and I am NOT in the bubble. I reside in a SE WI rural area (p.s. I was never able to figure out how Rodney Moen was considered a Democrat. He was an Opportunist!Maybe that’s all it takes. Speaking to him one on one his views were more center right than HC’s if not moreso. )

    1. Lisa Wolters,

      This post doesn’t tear down anyone. It’s an honest look at Vinehout’s electoral record in a historical context. And I guess I don’t understand what’s to be gained from smearing Rod Moen. He held that seat for 20 years. You’re the one tearing an individual down.

  12. Given the fiscal train wreck that is Illinois, props to Vinehout and her cohorts for picking an appropriate state to flee to! Would make for some effective television advertising with very little effort.

    1. Yes, an effective political move for those in the minority position,to be very proud of in the face of fascist tyrants at the helm back then.

      Readers here already knew that, so what’s your point about Illinois’ fiscal situation having anything to do with simply getting across any state line to let some light shine on the majority party led attack on democracy for a few days? Has WI been on anything but a sucking fiscal whirlpool since Walker took over?

  13. I believe that only a person who is not only qualified by virtue of previous service, but who is also willing to engage in some hard core, take-no-prisoners debating will ever defeat any of the current cutthroat Republican incumbents. I tried to get that message through first to Doug La Follette (versus Walker) and then to Mary Hoeft (versus Duffy) to no avail. If a Democratic candidate can’t interrupt Scott Walker and call him a liar to his face, right there in public in front of the media, that candidate will lose. I say “Show some anger, some righteous indignation, or don’t bother to run for office.”

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