Steven Walters
The State of Politics

The Race Is On For Lt. Governor

The last time there was no incumbent, back in 2010, nine candidates ran for the position.

By - Jul 26th, 2021 02:26 pm
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

Next year will be the first time in 12 years without an incumbent lieutenant governor. The job will be open next year because Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has announced he will run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

Let’s consider what happened in the September 2010 primary for the job of being the most loyal and enthusiastic champion of your boss, the governor. There were five Republican candidates for Lt. Governor; Rebecca Kleefisch, Rep. Brett Davis, former Rep. Robert Gerald Lorge, Superior Mayor Dave Ross and Nick Voegeli.

Kleefisch won easily, became the running mate with her party’s candidate for governor, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, and served eight years as his lieutenant governor. Kleefisch plans to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers next year. Her September 2010 primary win was her breakout entry into Wisconsin politics.

There were four Democrats in the September 2010 primary for lieutenant governor: State Sen. Spencer Coggs; Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive now running for the U.S. Senate; Henry Sanders and James Schneider.

Nelson won the low-turnout primary, becoming the running mate for the party’s candidate for governor, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The Walker/Kleefisch team beat Barrett/Nelson by a 52-48 margin.

Barnes, 34, won a 2018 primary to be Evers running mate and is the first African-American lieutenant governor. He is the third high-profile Milwaukee County Democratic candidate for the Senate, joining Milwaukee Bucks Executive Alex Lasry and State Sen. Chris Larson.

It will be interesting to see who — legislators, local officials, business executives — announce for lieutenant governor and what campaign themes they identify. And will Madison-based Evers try to recruit another African-American running mate from Milwaukee?

For anyone thinking about running, a few questions and answers.

Is it a good job?

Governor is a much better job. But if your boss trusts and has confidence in you, being lieutenant governor is a fascinating front-row seat on how state government works, including how the new $87-billion two-year state budget impacts lives, and partisan politics.

There is also almost full-time travel, going everywhere statewide when the governor can’t or to places you have cleared in advance with the governor’s aides, in a state car with a security detail.

Why add that caveat, “if your boss trusts and has confidence in you”?

Although Evers and Barnes, and Walker and Kleefisch, worked well together, that hasn’t always been the case.

In 2002, the winner of the Democratic primary for governor, Attorney General Jim Doyle, didn’t want Barbara Lawton to win the primary for lieutenant governor. Doyle preferred State Sen. Kevin Shibilski, of Stevens Point. Doyle and Lawton were never close during their eight years in office.

But four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and his lieutenant governor, Scott McCallum, had the roughest relationship between 1986 and early 2001, when Thompson resigned for a Bush Administration cabinet job. At one point, to remind McCallum of his status, Thompson’s top deputy took McCallum’s state car away.

Governors can also shrink the lieutenant governor’s public profile if they think their No. 2 is too politically ambitious.

What about pay, office and staffing for the lieutenant governor?

The job pays about $80,680 a year and comes with a first-floor Capitol office directly below the Governor’s Office. No official residence. The lieutenant governor has five full-time aides; the governor, 37.

How long does a lieutenant governor hold the job?

That depends. The last seven have averaged about seven years in office. McCallum’s 14 years was the longest; Republican Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, the first woman in the job when McCallum appointed her in spring 2001 had the shortest tenure, since Doyle beat McCallum in the 2002 election.

Do lieutenant governors get elected governor?

Not in Wisconsin, it seems. McCallum moved up when Thompson resigned only to lose the election for governor. Former Democratic Gov. Martin Schreiber moved up to governor when Patrick Lucey became ambassador to Mexico in 1977 but then lost the 1980 election to Republican Lee S. Dreyfus.

So here’s the challenge for potential candidates. Can you articulate your political philosophy? Got a position on the Big Lie? Like people — friends, family members, strangers — well enough to ask them for campaign cash? Can you live with being told where to go, what to say and what not to say?

If that’s you, go for it.

Steven Walters has covered the Capitol since 1988. Contact him at

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