There isn’t much that distinguishes Wisconsin state Reps. Mark Pocan and Kelda Helen Roys — at least on paper. But in the race between the two Democrats to succeed Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), there is growing support and momentum behind Pocan, who, like Baldwin, is openly gay.
Pocan has served 14 years in the state Assembly and has support from the party establishment and unions. He remains the frontrunner with three weeks to go before the Aug. 14 primary.
Pocan added an endorsement from Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) last week to a list of endorsements from Capitol Hill Democrats that includes Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Barney Frank (Mass.).
In the campaign’s final weeks, Roys’ prospects lie in her ability to distinguish herself from her better-known opponent, Wisconsin Democratic strategists said.
While the Pocan and Roys campaigns are respectively trying to differentiate between themselves based on experience and commitment to the issues, observers said identity politics are likely to drive many voters’ decisions. The two fit into two important constituencies in Madison — women’s and gay rights groups.
Pocan has the support of the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, while Roys, a former leader of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, touts an endorsement from EMILY’s List.
The support for Pocan has been more pronounced. He has the endorsement of all of the openly gay members of Congress, with the exception of Baldwin, who is running for Senate and has remained neutral.
Frank, who is openly gay and retiring at the end of this Congress, described Pocan as an “able and thoughtful” legislative leader. But Frank also acknowledged his desire to see more openly gay and lesbian Members as influential in his decision to endorse Pocan.
“I’m leaving. Tammy’s leaving. I think it is important for there to be openly gay and lesbian people in the legislative body,” Frank said. “Among a number of qualified people, I think that’s a relevant factor.”
Pocan’s support from outside interest groups, including labor unions, has translated into a sizable financial advantage in the race. In the second quarter, he raised $250,000 compared with Roys’ $131,000. Pocan also ended June with about $260,000 more in the bank.
Despite its endorsement, EMILY’s List has not spent any money to boost Roys in the race.
Neither Pocan nor Roys have focused on identity politics in the race. Instead, Pocan has sought to make the election a question of experience, while Roys has sought to draw a contrast between the candidates’ commitment to liberal causes.
Pocan’s campaign ads tout his work on legislation to limit outsourcing and to aid rape victims, along with his experience operating a small business.
“I think Kelda has as strong values as do I,” Pocan said. “I think the difference is that I’ve actually accomplished things for those values.”
Pocan pointed to his endorsements from more than 25 Wisconsin labor unions and a number of prominent elected officials, including former Gov. Jim Doyle (D), as indicative of his legislative successes and his ability to develop close working relationships.
While Pocan’s strategy of touting support and experience has allowed him to avoid negative campaigning, some Democrats on the ground cautioned that endorsements don’t trump an aggressive field operation.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.