Monday, July 10, 2006

Verdicts hurt Wisconsin governor's re-election bid, analysts say


Verdicts hurt Wisconsin governor's re-election bid, analysts say

RYAN J. FOLEY
Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. - Democrats' hopes of retaining the governor's office in this key swing state took a hit with the conviction of a state official for steering a contract to a company that donated to Gov. Jim Doyle, political analysts said Tuesday.
Federal jurors Monday convicted Georgia Thompson, a Department of Administration purchasing official, of fraud charges for steering a contract to book travel to Adelman Travel Group. The company's chief executive and a board member each gave $10,000 to Doyle's campaign before and after winning the contract.
The felony convictions add an explosive issue into Doyle's campaign in which he is trying to become the first Democratic governor to win re-election in Wisconsin in 32 years.
Doyle is facing a challenge from U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay, in the November general election. Polls already show the race in a statistical dead heat five months before the election. Even before the conviction, several analysts said Doyle was among the most vulnerable Democratic governors running for re-election.
"I think this is definitely going to be an issue in the race, especially in an election cycle where ethics is playing a role," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report. "As Democrats have pushed this message of a culture of corruption at the national level, it has a backlash effect on someone like Doyle."
Voters in Wisconsin, a state traditionally known for its clean government, tend to punish elected officials for corruption, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"It does hurt him and the amazing thing is he's only been in one term. Usually it takes awhile to develop corruption," he said. "Does this trial mean Doyle himself is corrupt? Of course not. But he's going to be held accountable for what's happened in his administration."
Doyle said Tuesday the trial made clear Thompson acted alone and that he was moving to fire her, saying he has "zero tolerance for ethical lapses in government." He said he's not worried that the conviction could hurt him politically, saying voters would be focused on issues like education and the economy.
"I've been around tough campaigns before and I know that there are going to be a lot of accusations back and forth," Doyle told reporters after an appearance at a home in a Madison suburb. "The fact is that this was a verdict about one state employee, a woman to this day I've never met."
Both national parties are focusing on the race because they believe control of the governor's office will help them carry the swing state in the 2008 presidential election.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry defeated President Bush to take the state's 10 electoral votes by 11,000 votes out of nearly 3 million cast in 2004. Doyle served as Kerry's campaign chairman in the state and used the powers of his office to help him win.
The convictions of Thompson came just three days after Doyle kicked off his re-election campaign with a speech at the state Democratic Party convention in La Crosse.
During the weeklong trial, U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic painted a cozy relationship between Doyle and Adelman.
The governor met with Adelman executives months before the contract competition and his top aide at the time met and traded phone calls with Adelman before and during the competition. Doyle appeared at the firm's 20th anniversary party last summer, just months after it won the contract worth an estimated $750,000.
Thompson, a civil servant, said she was unaware of the close relationship between Doyle and Adelman and felt no pressure to award the contract to Adelman. Biskupic cautioned that the case was not about Doyle.
Still, the state Republican Party wasted no time in going on the attack.
The trial "showed how far this administration is willing to go to reward political cronies and campaign donors," state GOP Chairman Rick Graber said in a statement.
Green, who became Doyle's main challenger after Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker dropped out of the race earlier this year, called for a change in state law to prohibit campaign contributions while companies compete for state work.
Doyle canceled the contract after the indictment but has kept the story alive by refusing to return the donations, analysts said.
"Give the money back. It's not worth it," Sabato said. "That's always a mistake when officials turn stubborn."
Sabato said Doyle's popularity has been hampered by battles with the Republican-controlled state Legislature and the shadow of four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state's most popular elected official who stepped down to join President Bush's cabinet in 2001.
Doyle is making his support of embryonic stem cell research, pioneered in Wisconsin, the centerpiece of the campaign and framing the election as a choice between Wisconsin values and Washington, where Green has served in Congress since 1998.
Doyle's top aide, Department of Administration Secretary Steve Bablitch, said the case wouldn't hurt Doyle's campaign. He said Doyle would be rewarded by voters for balancing a $3.2 billion budget deficit he inherited without raising taxes, boosting funding for schools and downsizing state government.
"At the end of the day, the voters are going to be looking at the governor's track record," he said.

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