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Democrats reorganizing for 2017 and beyond

WiG and AP reports

Wisconsin Democrats will decide this winter who will lead their state party through 2017 and into the high-stakes election for governor in 2018.

Democrats are already talking about who might wage the best campaign against Republican Scott Walker, who is hinting at a bid for a third term. He said he won’t announce until the summer.

State Sen. Jennifer Shilling says she’s not planning to challenge Walker. Shilling, of La Crosse, narrowly defeated Republican Dan Kapanke in November and had to wait out a recount to confirm a 61-vote victory.

Now, she said, she’s committed to rebuilding a Democratic majority in the Senate, but she doesn’t rule out a gubernatorial run at some point. “There will be other opportunities for me. You never say never.”

No Democrat had announced plans to run for governor as of WiG press time, but several names have been mentioned as possible candidates:

• Former state Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville.

• Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

• State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma.

• U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse.

Wisconsin Party chair race

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairwoman Martha Laning has announced she’ll run for another term despite the outcome of the general election in the state.

In November, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since Ronald Regan in 1984, Russ Feingold failed to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, and the GOP expanded its majorities in the state Assembly and state Senate.

In a news release, Laning said she’s been traveling the state to “debrief” Democrats on the election.

Dane County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Basford said he’s considering running against Laning, saying there’s a “considerable amount of disappointment” in the party.

Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy, former president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, said he, too, is considering running against Laning.

“I’m tired of us losing,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Joe Wineke, who lost a bid for the post to Laning in 2015, called Laning “invisible.”

“We lost everything again,” Wineke said. “I’m not sympathetic to this and I’m not supportive.”

Wisconsin GOP Chairman Brad Courtney was re-elected to another two-year term earlier this month. He was unopposed. He’s been the state GOP chairman for nearly six years.

Democratic National Committee race

At the national level, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was the early favorite to become the next party leader, but faces continued resistance from key parts of the party’s base — and a strong new competitor.

Backers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are throwing their support behind Ellison to head the Democratic National Committee, while some Hillary Clinton supporters are searching for an alternative.

Ellison picked up a powerful endorsement from the AFL-CIO, which issued a statement calling him a “proven leader.”

But, a union leader criticized the AFL-CIO for only including Ellison’s name, along with the choices to abstain or “make no endorsement at this time,” on the ballot sent to union members.

Ellison’s candidacy remains under siege, and other candidates have emerged.

Ellison, an African American, has faced vocal criticism from prominent Democrats, Jewish groups and some union leaders, who have questioned his comments about Israel, his past defense of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and his commitment to his own party.

An editorial in an official Nation of Islam publication, The Final Call, quoted articles that Ellison wrote in the 1990s praising Farrakhan as a “sincere, tireless and uncompromising advocate.”

The editorial went on to accuse Ellison, the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, of being a “hypocrite” for now making a “cowardly and baseless repudiation” of Farrakhan.

Ellison’s history with the group has distressed some Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League has said Ellison’s past remarks about Israel were “disturbing and disqualifying,” and Haim Saban, a party donor deeply involved with Israeli issues, accused Ellison of being an “anti-Semite.”

DNC contest dividing Democrats

The contest has divided Democratic leaders, placing Obama’s team at odds with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his replacement, New York’s Chuck Schumer, whose early support for Ellison was seen as an effort to shore up the liberal flank in Congress.

Part of the issue is personal. Ellison has, at times, broken ranks to criticize Obama, the head of the party he now hopes to lead.

While White House aides say Obama is unlikely to publicly comment on the race, behind the scenes his backers have been speaking with Democratic donors and potential candidates to see who else might be persuaded to run, according to several Democrats familiar with the discussions.

High on the White House’s list of preferred candidates was Labor Secretary Tom Perez. And in mid-December, he announced his candidacy.

Perez represents an answer to the vocal contingent that’s pushing for a Latino leader at the DNC. They argue that the growing demographic group is crucial to the party’s future and should be represented at the highest levels.

South Carolina’s party chairman, Jaime Harrison, and the party head in New Hampshire, Ray Buckley, have announced bids, though they haven’t gotten much traction.

Missouri’s secretary of state, Jason Kander, who attracted attention for running a surprisingly competitive Senate race this year, says he’s gotten calls exploring his interest in the post.

“I’m going to do all that I can for the cause of progress,” Kander said. “If it turns out that my party wants me to serve as chair I’m open to that.”

Message or mechanics

Ellison backers argue the party must take a more populist approach after the 2016 losses, saying Democratic leaders did too little to address the economic pain of working-class voters.

“Keith brings a breath of fresh air to the Democratic party,” said DNC member Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “He believes in strengthening the economics for working families across the country.”

But not all agree. A faction “seems to want to push our movement further and further to the left,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said in a recent statement. “That is a recipe for disaster as the most recent election results just showed.”

Still others are more concerned with campaign mechanics than message, saying the party’s outreach, bench and fundraising languished under U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who served as chair of the DNC from 2011 to 2016.

“Ellison talks about vision when we need a fundraiser and organizer,” said Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic operative and DNC member.

Get involved

For more about the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, go online to wisdems.org.

For more about the DNC, go online to democrats.org.

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