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State Democratic Party chairwoman won’t seek post again

February 7, 2019
Kelda Roys

The chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Martha Laning, won’t seek a third term for the post, creating a vacancy to lead Democrats in one of the nation’s battleground states heading into the 2020 campaign.

Former Democratic congressional candidate Randy Bryce, party vice chairman and state Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, and 2018 governor candidate Kelda Roys of Madison told the State Journal they’re considering runs to succeed Laning.

The party chair election will be held at Democrats’ state convention in June. It will determine who leads the party heading into 2020, when Wisconsin will be ground zero in the national presidential campaign.

The state also will be in the national spotlight next summer if Milwaukee hosts the 2020 Democratic National Convention, for which it is considered one of three finalists along with Houston and Miami Beach.

Laning was elected party chairwoman in 2015 during a low point for Democrats’ fortunes in Wisconsin, but went on to oversee the party’s resurgence.

The party had just lost three straight gubernatorial elections to Republican Scott Walker. And the 2016 elections, in which Republican Donald Trump carried Wisconsin, was another blow.

But Laning was re-elected in 2017 and Democrats -- fueled in part by blowback to Trump -- surged in November, electing Gov. Tony Evers and state Attorney General Josh Kaul and re-electing U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Laning said in a statement that she is “incredibly proud of the party we have built.” She focused on improving party fundraising and beefing up its organizing capacity by hiring a slate of local organizers throughout the state.

“Given these accomplishments and the bright future ahead for Wisconsin Democrats, I believe this is the perfect time for me to transition to my next challenge,” Laning said. The release didn’t say what is next for Laning.

State party spokeswoman Courtney Beyer said no one has formally entered the race for the next party chairperson.

Bryce, contacted by the State Journal Wednesday, acknowledged “some people have reached out to see if I’d be interested in running” -- he said they include labor and veterans groups. Bryce acknowledged he’s thinking about it, adding he has no timetable to decide.

Bryce, of Racine, was the Democratic nominee last year in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District. He entered the race initially to challenge former House Speaker Paul Ryan and attracted a national following on social media. When Ryan decided not to run again, Republican Bryan Steil of Janesville secured the nomination and beat Bryce in the general election.

Bryce is a close ally of likely presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned repeatedly for him in Wisconsin last year.

Asked what approach he would bring to leading the state party, Bryce said “we need to advocate more for working people and those that have been struggling.”

Bryce said he’s also interested to hear what Evers thinks about who the next party chairperson should be.

Roys is a former state representative who ran for governor in 2018, finishing third in the Democratic primary behind Evers and Mahlon Mitchell.

Bowen was elected party vice chairman in 2015 on a joint ticket with Laning. He said Wednesday the party needs someone who can maintain and build on the progress Laning has made.

Also critical, Bowen said, is finding a party chair who can effectively fundraise, as he said Laning did. Bowen said recent results prove the party is on a sound trajectory.

“Obviously things are going in the right direction,” Bowen said. “We proved our operation could beat Scott Walker’s operation.”

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