Mary Burke's campaign to be the first woman elected Wisconsin governor comes as Republican incumbent Scott Walker deals with lagging poll numbers among women and a continued attack from Democrats that the GOP doesn't care about female voters.
It is not clear yet how much Burke is willing to capitalize on that potential weakness. She has downplayed gender in comments made in the opening weeks of her campaign, while another potential female Democratic candidate, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, sees it as a key issue.
"I believe this campaign is about who the people of Wisconsin believe will provide the best leadership to lead Wisconsin forward," said Burke, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive and state Commerce Department secretary. "I don't think this is going to be an issue based on gender, one way or the other, but of course I would be very proud to blaze that trail."
In contrast, Vinehout said health care and education will be key issues in the race, and female candidates are better positioned than men to attack Walker on those topics.
"The tone of the state would change if we had a woman governor," Vinehout said.
Walker's campaign spokesman said the governor's record appeals to all voters.
"Wisconsin has turned the corner through Governor Walker's leadership with lower taxes, more jobs, and real reform," spokesman Jonathan Wetzel said. "We're confident that all voters want to continue moving Wisconsin forward, and have no desire to return to the failed policies of the past."
A Marquette University Law School poll released in July showed a significant gender gap in Walker's support. Fifty-four percent of men, compared to 43 percent of women, approved of the governor's job performance. More women than men — 52 percent to 39 percent — disapproved.
With Walker likely to face a woman in the general election, the question now is, what does he do to win more women to his side, pollster Charles Franklin said.
"The obvious assumption is that a female candidate brings women even more strongly to them," Franklin said. "There is some truth to that, but it's always important to realize that women as a group are not homogeneous. We do have more women who lean Democratic rather than Republican, overall. That's one of the foundations of the gender gap."
Deciding on which candidate to support in any election based on gender is disingenuous, said Pam Stevens, of Kenosha, vice president of the Women Republicans of South East Wisconsin.
"To me voting for somebody because of their gender is the same as voting for somebody because of their race," Stevens said. "I don't believe in that. I believe in voting for the person because of where they stand."
Stevens, who supports Walker, said Burke will have a hard time convincing people that he hasn't done a good job as governor and should be replaced.
"I think the people of Wisconsin will be smart enough to see we are moving ahead as a state," she said.
Walker signed legislation in July that requires women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds first. The law also requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has challenged the restrictions in court.
That law and others, including one repealing equal pay protections for women and another cutting money for women's health services, led Democrats to argue that Republicans were waging a "war on women."
EMILY's List, a well-funded, pro-Democratic group that backs candidates who support abortion rights, endorsed Burke this week. The group spent nearly $5 million on Democrat Tammy Baldwin's race for the U.S. Senate last year.
Burke told news organizations this month that "women should have the freedom to make their own health choices," but was careful to avoid getting into details about her views on abortion restrictions. Vinehout is for abortion rights, and says abortion should be "legal, safe and rare."
No woman from a mainstream political party has made it past a gubernatorial primary in Wisconsin, but Burke's candidacy comes a year after Baldwin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin. Baldwin said Burke's history as a job creator will be a more significant factor in her race than the fact that she's a woman.
"I'm very pleased that the Democrats have a very strong candidate in Mary Burke who brings real life experience in job creation and running a business to her candidacy and somebody who will stand in stark contrast to Scott Walker and his record on job creation," Baldwin said.