Executive Action

In the race for Milwaukee County Executive, incumbent Chris Abele is spending early, indicating he’s not taking this election for granted. We break down some of the factors at play in his campaign against state Sen. Chris Larson.

If you judge by the campaign ads, the race for Milwaukee County executive would seem to be a one-sided affair.

Voters are seeing a lot of incumbent Chris Abele on television, in their mailboxes and online. The millionaire executive is pouring cash into his campaign advertising like water into a fire hose, trying to extinguish any hope for his opponent, state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) months before the Feb. 16 primary and April 5 general election.

And yet if the race really was that lopsided, political insiders say, Abele wouldn’t feel the need to spend this much. Observers believe Abele is hitting the airwaves hard because his internal polling shows he’s vulnerable.

But if that’s true, how could Larson overcome Abele’s huge financial advantage to exploit those vulnerabilities? Let’s take a look at some of the factors that could shape the race:

Demographics: It was no coincidence that Larson kicked off his campaign at his parents’ Greenfield home, instead of his own Bay View neighborhood. With two Milwaukee Democrats facing off, suburban votes conceivably could decide the outcome.

The suburbs — generally more conservative and more Caucasian than the diverse and predominantly Democratic city — were the key for Abele’s predecessor, now-Gov. Scott Walker. Then a Wauwatosa Republican state representative, riding a tide of conservative outrage against the county pension scandal, Walker rolled up a big suburban margin to crush moderate Hales Corners Village President Jim Ryan, who carried Milwaukee even while losing his hometown in the 2002 special election. Walker flexed his suburban muscle again to turn back Milwaukee Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor, who carried the city in 2008.

Abele turned the tables in the 2011 special election to succeed Walker. Then-state Rep. Jeff Stone, a Greendale Republican running on a platform of continuing Walker’s policies, carried the suburbs but was swamped by Abele’s commanding margin in the city, where Democrats thirsted to take back the officially nonpartisan exec’s office after more than eight years of Walker.

This time, however, Abele can’t take the city vote for granted. He’s angered Democratic leaders and traditionally Democratic constituencies by working with Republicans to expand his power at the expense of the County Board, by accepting a GOP plan to take over failing public schools (although he now says his new education commissioner wouldn’t take control of any schools) and by hard-line bargaining with public employees, climaxing in a brief strike by the bus drivers’ union before that contract was settled. However, insiders question how much average voters care about those issues or whether they will judge the incumbent by the quality of county services, as Abele has long contended they should.

If he lost the city, Abele would need to make up ground in the suburbs, where his fiscally conservative approach could play better. In effect, he would be trading his 2011 base for Walker’s 2008 base. Still, Larson argues, suburban Republicans might rather sit out the election than back Abele if they believe he’s aiming to take on Walker in 2018 — despite Abele ruling out a gubernatorial bid. Business interests also could be concerned about Abele’s lack of a permanent airport director — but if Larson attacks high turnover in Abele’s administration, he could be vulnerable to similar jibes about turnover in his own campaign leadership.

Incumbency: Abele is running on his record of accomplishments to date, campaign manager Tia Torhorst said by email. And only one challenger has unseated an incumbent Milwaukee County executive: In 1988, former Parks Director David Schulz ousted the boss who fired him, three-term County Executive Bill O’Donnell, 2-1, even though O’Donnell outspent him by the same margin. While Schulz’s natural flair for publicity gave him an edge over the older and less flashy O’Donnell, he won largely by convincing voters he could steer the county into the future, while O’Donnell promised only more of the past.

By contrast, many of the challengers who fell to Walker and Sheriff David Clarke relied too much on rallying people to vote against the incumbents and not enough on giving citizens a real alternative to vote for. While Larson has yet to establish himself in the public consciousness, he says he will lay out plans for substantial improvements in parks and transit.

Coattails: For the first time since 2000, a contested general election for county executive will coincide with a presidential primary. Nobody knows who will remain in the presidential race in April, but the liberal Larson would likely benefit if supporters of self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) turn out heavily in the Democratic contest. Abele has endorsed former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is unlikely to stay in contention against Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Larson is still fighting an uphill battle against an incumbent with a massive campaign treasury. But if Abele isn’t taking this election for granted, nobody else should, either.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.