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.