If you happen to watch television in the Milwaukee market, you’ve probably seen Robyn Vining’s sunny, forward-looking campaign ad in the last few weeks. The ad doesn’t say who her party was, though you could probably guess based on the issues the regular folk in the ad gave as reasons to vote. Vining was just “fighting for our values.” (If you haven’t seen it, click that YouTube link for the one-minute version of it.)
A month ago, I couldn’t have told you who she was. In fact, a neighbor of mine asked me who she was, and I had to pull my tablet out and run a Google search. She has a Wikipedia page! I learned there that she was an incumbent Democratic state representative for Wauwatosa and Brookfield, western suburbs of Milwaukee. She’s also a minister.
Here’s two things you don’t see every day:
- A relatively obscure elected official from Wisconsin with a Wikipedia page
- TV ads for a State Assembly candidate
Vining’s website describes “our vision” with a quote from black theologian and activist Cornel West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” which puts her firmly in the progressive Democrat camp. Her endorsements include labor, progressives, and African American organizations, and the Working Families Party. Oh, and there’s Joe Biden and Kamala Harris too.
The question remains: Her ad is getting seen by many more people than live in her district. Aren’t there more cost-efficient ways to spend that money?
Seems to me that Vining is trying to raise her profile. That translates to: She has ambitions outside her current office. This isn’t terribly surprising or shocking.
Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that she’s making two bets about this election. The first bet offers pretty good odds: She beats Republican Bonnie Lee in 2020. If she’s spending even a small portion of her $250,000 campaign treasury (more than double Lee’s $117,000) to spend on TV ads, she must think spending her donors’ money on reaching many people outside the district is worthwhile. Of course, she may also be interested in raising more money to beat Lee, who hasn’t been running TV ads.
The second bet may say something about how she and her team think about the broader prospects for Democrats this year.
One of the bigger tasks of the legislature in 2021 will be redistricting following this year’s census. As we all know, the 2011 redistricting plan was cooked up by Scott Walker and his GOP majorities in both legislative houses.
As it happens, Vining explains on her site that her “first piece of legislation … was to create a non-partisan redistricting commission, removing the ability for the people in power to use that power to protect their own jobs, and their own political party’s power.” It didn’t pass. She also picked up an endorsement from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Next year, Tony Evers will still be governor. Most likely, the Assembly will still have a Republican majority. BUT the current Republican majority in the state senate is only 19–14. If three seats flip this year, Evers’ effort to install an independent redistricting commission will be strengthened immeasurably.
Democrats may not even need a Senate majority to make the redistricting effort more fair.
Getting back to Vining and her air time, she’s betting that the playing field for 2022 will be more level. In which case, she could have options for her ambitions:
- Stay in the Assembly where there’s more of a realistic hope of a Democratic majority, perhaps where she could join the party leadership.
- Consider challenging current state senator Ron Kooyenga, who she succeeded in the Assembly
- Perhaps she’s interested in going to Washington. Scott Fitzgerald will be a first-term Republican in a minority without much power. If Vining challenged him and won in 2022, that would really raise her profile!