Tim Cullen has to be the latest, worst nightmare for the Wisconsin Republican Party.
The Democrats had not surfaced a formidable candidate to run against Gov. Scott Walker in the all-but-certain recall election in 2012. They had a number of potential candidates, but no one had announced for sure. Now they have a man for all seasons.
Cullen has chops as a political and government leader, as an electable politician and as a business executive. He was majority leader for five years during his senate tenure from 1974 to 1987. He earned his government leadership stripes as a cabinet secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He was a very successful top executive at Blue Cross/Blue Shield for 19 years after that.
That’s quite a track record, one that few other potential Democratic candidates can match.
Then he proved he was still a vote getter when he ran for his old senate seat in the Beloit-Janesville area, winning in 2010 when the three assembly seats in his district went Republican. He knows how to work the doors.
Two things stand out about Cullen: He knows how to lead and manage – the latter a rarity in the political world, and he can cross the aisle to work with opponents, another rarity in these times.
The hallmark in Cullen’s career has been an ability to work with all kinds of people. During the maelstrom over collective bargaining and the disenfranchisement of public unions earlier this year, Cullen showed solidarity with his Democratic colleagues in the Senate by decamping to Illinois.
But, on his return, after the furor quieted, he and veteran Republican Sen. Dale Schultz travelled the state calling for a return to some semblance of civility and bipartisanship. It didn’t work, but, in today’s sulfuric political environment, it was a demonstration of maturity and even-handedness.
Why is this important?
Cullen’s quest for political equilibrium may not appeal to the zealots on the left of his party, but the party may be savvy enough not to challenge him from the left. It may see him as a potential winner of the governor’s chair
In the end, it is the independents in Wisconsin who make the difference. It is a purple state divided right down the middle between the two parties in statewide elections. Most polls put the independent block at about 40% of the electorate. They are the pivotal block. They love neither party.
Indeed, most independents are disgusted with extreme politics. Talk show entertainers love the dramatics of divisive, attack politics. But they talk mostly to a small segment of the political spectrum
The independents prefer problem solvers. They would like pragmatic answers to issues like job creation, growing the economy and curtailing health costs.
Cullen is such a pragmatist. He has been working, for instance, to get a venture capitol bill passed, bringing Democratic support to that job creation initiative.
The argument can be made that recall elections, generated by differences on the issues, are an abrogation of a sane political process.
Nonetheless, it looks like there will be a recall of the governor and four GOP state senators. Gov. Scott Walker has admitted that he expects to face another election. Union leaders and Democrats say they have five-sixths of the necessary total of signatures, and there are three weeks to go. Welcome electoral chaos.
The campaign, already underway, will be short, only 45 days from the day the petitions are validated, but not sweet if a highly partisan Democrat is the nominee – someone like vitriolic Dave Obey, an uber-partisan.
If not sweet, the campaign could be more civil, a debate on the issues, if Cullen, a respected pragmatist, is the nominee. Gov. Walker has promised a campaign on his record, and he has track record of not making his campaigns personal in nature.
A Cullen-Walker contest could be a healthy referendum, an issue-oriented campaign, on where the state stands on collective bargaining and the power of public unions. That will be the main issue, even though job creation remains the state’s number one need.