2010 Gubernatorial Race Looking Like 1986

It's always dangerous to compare future elections to past campaigns, but I live dangerously so I have to say that next year's gubernatorial race looks a bit like 1986.

It's not completely analogous. That year, a Republican upstart named Tommy Thompson shocked an incumbent Democrat, Tony Earl, and there will be no incumbent (unless Jim Doyle changes his mind) next year.

Still, Thompson gained a lot of traction bemoaning the business climate in the state, even though the country was in the midst of an economic expansion. I suspect the current business climate will be a key issue next year, quite possibly with the headwind of an improved but still somewhat sluggish economy behind it.

Forbes recently added fuel to the fire, ranking Wisconsin as the third-worst state in the country in which to do business, behind only Michigan and Rhode Island. Ouch!

Forbes evaluated states in six categories — costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, economic climate, growth prospects, and quality of life. The latter is the only category where Wisconsin ranked highly.

For Republican gubernatorial contenders like Scott Walker, that's grist for the mill. Conservatives view the recently passed State Budget, the work of a Democratic Party majority, as the most anti-business spending plan in recent memory. They are no doubt eager to make that case next year, but they have their own recent failings to overcome.

(One wonders when the public will actually notice that the two major political parties take turns wearing out their welcome. That's why a third-party candidate, especially a well-funded one, is always an intriguing prospect.)

Meanwhile, Legislative leaders like State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, already are talking about the possible need for even more taxes to fill gaps that recently tax hikes have not.

That's not exactly the best position heading into 2010. Worse still for Democrats, one of the better Democratic contenders, Congressman Ron Kind, has said he won't run, while another, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, seems unenthusiastic.

That leaves Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton as the front-runner. Nice lady, but she's hardly in the mold of "Ms. Biz." That was the moniker of former Democratic State Senator Barbara Ulichny, who proved that a Democrat could be pro-business and progressive at the same time.

Democrats just might want to clone her.

Even former Governor Tommy Thompson, whose time has frankly come and gone, is said to be pondering a bid. Not that I'm completely down on his chances because a Thompson-Lawton general election strikes me as a monumental mismatch, but he still has to win the GOP nomination. As the Clintons learned last year, old political magic isn't easy to recapture.

No matter who wins the Republican nomination, Democrats had better come up with more viable candidate soon, or they face a repeat of the business-climate drubbing they got in 1986.