Tony Evers' supporters cheer him on

Supporters of Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers celebrate as he takes the stage during a post-election party at the Orpheum Theater in Madison.

MADISON — The Democratic Party of Wisconsin will pick a new leader this weekend, deciding who leads it into a 2020 campaign in which the state is widely viewed as the potential tipping point for the presidency.

The party’s vice chairman, state Rep. David Bowen, of Milwaukee, and former MoveOn.org leader Ben Wikler, of Madison, are seeking the post.

Martha Laning, of Sheboygan, who has held the position since 2015, isn’t running again.

The party chairperson will be elected to a two-year term by majority vote of the more than 1,000 delegates expected at the convention Saturday and Sunday in Milwaukee.

Gov. Tony Evers will give the convention’s keynote address Saturday night. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison; Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes; Attorney General Josh Kaul; and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, also are among those expected to speak.

The party leadership contest features a pair of young, but seasoned, political hands.

Wikler, a Madison native who moved back to his hometown late last year, held a string of national political positions that included being senior adviser and Washington director at the liberal grassroots group MoveOn.org. There, Wikler helped lead the successful organizing push in 2017 to halt the repeal of former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Bowen, a former Milwaukee County Board member and three-term lawmaker, has been vice chairman of the state party under Laning since 2015. Bowen said he’s proud of the strides the party has made since, culminating in its electoral triumphs in 2018 — when Evers, Baldwin and all other Democratic statewide candidates won election — but he says there’s more to be done.

Bowen said he wants to improve the state party’s relationship with local activists and give more influence to local groups to drive the party’s messaging. He said he’s running to bring greater consistency to Democratic campaigns and “move us beyond having really good moments.”

“The challenge is consistency,” Bowen said. “This state is built on progressive principles, and we want to return to that.”

Wikler said the next party chairperson will benefit from the groundswell of activist energy among Democrats in the Trump era.

“The challenge for the party is finding ways to channel it into collective action,” Wikler said.

Battleground state

The next party chairperson will help decide its direction at a time when Wisconsin may have a bigger role than ever in national politics.

The state is widely viewed as among a few that will decide the next president, and national Democrats will nominate their challenger to President Donald Trump at their national convention in Milwaukee next summer.

Evers is not endorsing a candidate in the chairperson race. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, told the State Journal he’s backing Wikler, in part due to his work at MoveOn.org.

Both Bowen and Wikler say the party’s staff must become more diverse, that the party must spur greater Democratic interest in state judicial elections, broaden its efforts to compete in areas where Democrats traditionally haven’t fared well, and rebuild trust in some urban areas where the party has been seen as taking voters for granted.

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Youth is served

Both Bowen, 32, and Wikler, 38, would bring youth to Democratic Party leadership. There are other similarities, including that both prominently supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

Both candidates praise Laning’s tenure, saying the party’s finances and organizing apparatus are vastly improved from when she took over in 2015.

Wikler said he wants to increase the use of data and mobile technology, including text messaging, in party organizing. He also would center much of the party’s messaging around provisions of Evers’ budget, including his proposed expansion of Medicaid eligibility for 82,000 Wisconsinites under the federal health care law.

Wikler said Democrats can “press the case” against Republican lawmakers who oppose the expansion, which a recent Marquette Law School poll showed was backed by 70% of respondents. He said the popularity of that and other Evers initiatives helps the party reach out to “folks who may not know they’re Democrats.”

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Heading into the 2020 cycle, Bowen said he seeks to improve what he called the “transactional relationship” the party has had with voters in some communities, especially in urban areas. Part of that, he said, is building a staff that reflects the communities in which they organize.

“We must challenge the thinking that we can just expect people to come to the polls and right the wrongs of 2016,” Bowen said.

Judicial races

Many party activists were frustrated by the results of recent state Supreme Court races, including this year, when conservative-backed Judge Brian Hagedorn notched an upset win over liberal-backed Judge Lisa Neubauer, and in 2017, when liberals failed to recruit a challenger to conservative-backed Justice Annette Ziegler.

Another state Supreme Court race beckons in April 2020, when conservative Justice Dan Kelly, appointed to the high court by former Gov. Scott Walker, is expected to seek election.

“There is a decades-old pattern where Republicans lean in more to judicial races,” Wikler said. “That’s got to end.”

Bowen said the party can do more to partner with other organizations to support judicial candidates, and to ensure its volunteers know how to get involved in state Supreme Court races.

Other positions

Bowen’s ticket includes Sauk County Democratic Party chairwoman Tammy Wood as candidate for vice chairperson of the state party and UW-Madison student and Kenosha organizer Alicia Lorta for second vice chairperson.

Wikler’s ticket includes Milwaukee County Board member Felesia Martin for vice chairperson and Outagamie County Democratic Party chairwoman Lee Snodgrass for second vice chairperson.

Although those candidates run as part of a ticket, the positions are elected separately.

Wisconsin Republicans also picked a new chairperson last month, Andrew Hitt. The state GOP does so with a different process: by a vote of its 31-member executive committee.

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