Mary Burke’s name appeared for the first time on a statewide ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor of Wisconsin.
In fact, it was the first time that Burke’s name had ever appeared on a partisan ballot.
Aside from a successful nonpartisan bid for a seat on the Madison School Board in 2012, Burke has never before contended for elective office.
Yet, on Tuesday, the former Trek Bicycle executive and Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce won the highest vote of anyone on the ballot for any statewide office, taking 83 percent of the vote against state Representative Brett Hulsey, D-Madison. Despite his long record in state politics, Hulsey’s run was weakened by personal and political stumbles; yet in a year of political frustration and disenchantment that has seen top-of-ticket contenders in other states (such as Kansas Governor Sam Brownback) lose as much as 35 percent of the vote to little-known primary challengers, Burke’s finish was robust and significant. Notably, in many western and northern Wisconsin countries where she must renew her party’s appeal, Burke was winning well over 90 percent.
The scope of the statewide win builds on the sense created by recent polls—which have since May portrayed the race as a toss-up, with Walker and Burke both capturing around 47 percent of the likely November vote—that Burke has evolved into a serious challenger to Republican Governor Scott Walker, the anti-labor, pro-austerity, extreme social conservative who began the 2014 race as a prohibitive favorite.
That does not necessarily mean that she will beat Walker, the all-but-announced 2016 Republican presidential contender who was unopposed in Tuesday’s GOP primary. But the strong primary finish provides another indicator that Burke, an unlikely and unexpected contender for the governorship, might well be putting together the campaign that Democrats lacked in their 2010 and 2012 attempts to beat Walker.
A favorite of the Koch brothers and conservative donors across the country, Walker will still have a lot more money to spend in 2014. And he has already confirmed that he will use it wage a scorched-earth campaign, characterized by brutally negative television ads. Unfortunately for the governor, however, his ads may actually have strengthened Burke—especially after the governor launched a bumbling attack on outsourcing by Burke family’s firm, Trek, that drew criticism even from Walker-friendly media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal.