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Wisconsin Candidates Battle to Proclaim Identity

There isn’t much that distinguishes Wisconsin state Reps. Mark Pocan and Kelda Helen Roys — at least on paper. But in the race between the two Democrats to succeed Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), there is growing support and momentum behind Pocan, who, like Baldwin, is openly gay.

Pocan has served 14 years in the state Assembly and has support from the party establishment and unions. He remains the frontrunner with three weeks to go before the Aug. 14 primary.

Pocan added an endorsement from Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) last week to a list of endorsements from Capitol Hill Democrats that includes Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Barney Frank (Mass.).

In the campaign’s final weeks, Roys’ prospects lie in her ability to distinguish herself from her better-known opponent, Wisconsin Democratic strategists said.

While the Pocan and Roys campaigns are respectively trying to differentiate between themselves based on experience and commitment to the issues, observers said identity politics are likely to drive many voters’ decisions. The two fit into two important constituencies in Madison — women’s and gay rights groups.

Pocan has the support of the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, while Roys, a former leader of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, touts an endorsement from EMILY’s List.

The support for Pocan has been more pronounced. He has the endorsement of all of the openly gay members of Congress, with the exception of Baldwin, who is running for Senate and has remained neutral.

Frank, who is openly gay and retiring at the end of this Congress, described Pocan as an “able and thoughtful” legislative leader. But Frank also acknowledged his desire to see more openly gay and lesbian Members as influential in his decision to endorse Pocan.

“I’m leaving. Tammy’s leaving. I think it is important for there to be openly gay and lesbian people in the legislative body,” Frank said. “Among a number of qualified people, I think that’s a relevant factor.”

Pocan’s support from outside interest groups, including labor unions, has translated into a sizable financial advantage in the race. In the second quarter, he raised $250,000 compared with Roys’ $131,000. Pocan also ended June with about $260,000 more in the bank.

Despite its endorsement, EMILY’s List has not spent any money to boost Roys in the race.

Neither Pocan nor Roys have focused on identity politics in the race. Instead, Pocan has sought to make the election a question of experience, while Roys has sought to draw a contrast between the candidates’ commitment to liberal causes.

Pocan’s campaign ads tout his work on legislation to limit outsourcing and to aid rape victims, along with his experience operating a small business.

“I think Kelda has as strong values as do I,” Pocan said. “I think the difference is that I’ve actually accomplished things for those values.”

Pocan pointed to his endorsements from more than 25 Wisconsin labor unions and a number of prominent elected officials, including former Gov. Jim Doyle (D), as indicative of his legislative successes and his ability to develop close working relationships.

While Pocan’s strategy of touting support and experience has allowed him to avoid negative campaigning, some Democrats on the ground cautioned that endorsements don’t trump an aggressive field operation.

“I think there are a lot of people who just don’t care which elected official is behind him,” said an operative who believes the race has narrowed substantially in recent weeks. “We see [Roys] really being out there, talking about [being] the hardcore progressive.”

Roys has portrayed herself as a progressive leader while at the same time questioning Pocan’s commitment to liberal causes and trying to tie him to the Washington, D.C., party establishment.

“When Kelda released her ads, she was really hitting the mark on him being a corporate guy and trying to out maneuver him on the left,” a Wisconsin Democratic strategist said.

Earlier this month, the Roys campaign issued a press release claiming that Pocan held a fundraiser in the office of a lobbyist for Koch Industries and that lobbyists for the Koch brothers’ company donated to Pocan’s campaign.

Roys offered a less explicit criticism of her opponent in an interview with Roll Call.

“Voters in this district are looking for someone who will stand up and do the right thing and not cave,” she said.

Democratic strategists said Roys’ strategy for distinguishing herself was to be expected but questioned its effectiveness against a candidate known for his progressive credentials.

“Mark has had a very long, very progressive record. He doesn’t take a back seat to anybody in terms of progressivism,” a local Democratic operative said. “I don’t know if people are going to take a look at [his] votes and question his progressive bona fides.”

The candidate who emerges from the primary will be heavily favored to become the next Member from the heavily Democratic 2nd district. That person is also expected to be a reliable vote for the liberal wing of the Democratic Caucus.  

“The thing about Mark and Kelda [is that] they tack quite a bit in the same direction,” said the operative of the candidates’ policy positions. “Distinguishing between the two of them is difficult for folks.”

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