The two "challengers" are Republican Jim Burkee and Democrat Jeff Walz, friends and teaching colleagues at Concordia University, a Lutheran school in suburban Mequon with 1600 undergraduate students.
Burkee and Walz say they will campaign together, debate one another, and even share a website, do joint advertising, yard signs and bumper stickers.
The NYT reported on it seriously:
"Jeff and I are friends," said Burkee, a history professor. "He’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican, and we disagree on a lot in terms of how we get things done. But we generally agree that it is outrageous that on a whole range of issues nothing has gotten done."
The candidates point to energy and immigration, along with fiscal policy and the expanding deficit, as issues that should have been dealt with by Congress. Several areas of agreement will be codified in a pact the candidates will sign a week after they officially launch their campaigns. Among their agreements: no personal attacks, no money from political action committees, no gifts from lobbyists and a self-imposed limit of three two-year terms in the House...
"You’re going to see that campaigning you’ve always wanted and deserved. It’s going to be clean, it’s going to be substantive, it’s going to be free of big money influences," Burkee said. "It’s going to be, I think, the kind of campaign our founders expected."
Although only one of them can be elected to Congress, Burkee and Walz discuss their joint campaign in terms of what would happen if "we" win. They said they would continue teaching at Concordia as they served the district’s constituents, bringing back the idea of citizen legislators instead of career politicians.
So far they have not contacted their state parties or the national party campaign committees, and they’ve said they do not intend to. Walz, a professor of political science at Concordia, described the campaign as a collaboratively run grass-roots effort they hope to keep "outside of party support and outside of the party apparatus."
The idea for the run came out of a series of lectures Burkee and Walz undertook during the 2004 presidential campaign. The two professors, supporting their respective parties’ presidential candidates (Bush for Burkee and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for Walz), conducted a series of self-moderated debates around the district to help educate voters about major issues.
Walz and Burkee said they heard voters from both parties expressed frustration about their parties, but also about the system. "At one point we just looked at each other and said, you know what, I think we need to run," Burkee said.
"And we need to run and we need to win and in the process show people what a campaign can really look like, but also go to D.C. and actually get something done because talking about it isn’t doing the trick," he said.
"What you’re going to see from our campaign is two people who care about the country and care about issues and who can talk about issues in a civil and in a very knowledgeable manner," Walz added.
Seniors from Concordia University and the University of Wisconsin will staff the campaigns, and the congressional hopefuls said they have received strong support from their home university. "We oftentimes hear about the apathy in America, the apathy among students, but to have two professors modeling good citizenship is . . . a valuable learning experience for our students and for our university," Walz said.
So, what's wrong with that noble idea?
First of all, it starts from the premise that it doesn't matter who wins. If "they" win -- either one of them -- they plan to serve together.
But elections are all about making distinctions between candidates and allowing the voters to make a choice. That's why we have campaigns. If the two "opponents" are simply going to share the office afterward, why bother?
Of course, there is no danger of that.
The odds of toppling Sensenbrenner, who got 62% against another professor, Bryan Kennedy, last year, are astronomical.
The odds of Burkee beating Sensenbrenner in a Republican primary are even longer.
So, what happens to the joint campaign if Walz gets the Democratic nomination to take on Sensenbrenner? Does he ask Big Jim to share yard signs and TV commercials with him? Or does he talk about the real differences between the candidates and make a case for getting ride of the incumbent?
The danger in this academic experiment is that it will prevent a serious Democratic candidate -- as serious as one can be in a longshot race, anyway -- from running.
Despite their optimism, the professors will find that once they've had their first "debate," and the first round of stories have been written, that they will have to set their hair on fire to get any more media attention.
Although they say they were inspired by the reaction to their 2004 debates during the presidential campaign, the two participants are probably the only ones who remember them.
A conservative Wisconsin blogger, Rick Esenberg, wonders if this dual candidacy passes the smug test:
My first reaction to the two Concordia professors who want to run together was to push the smug alarm. It smacks of this notion - which tends to be associated with moderate Republicans who won't admit they have become Democrats - that politics is a science, i.e., that there is some neutral way of identifying the public good that we might all agree upon if we just got out of the partisan muck. While these guys say that they disagree each other, I wonder. I am generally suspicious of those who say we can rise above partisanship. There is a reason that we cling to our partisan divides. They reflect real differences of opinion about important stuff.
He and others seem willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, largely because recent campaigns have been unseemly or even repulsive.
But if you take the conflict out of campaigns, what's left?
The voters deserve more than a sideshow, and that's what this exercise promises to be.
More on Sensenbrenner Watch.
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