In a panel hosted by The Capital Times Wednesday night, two seasoned political operatives — one Democrat, one Republican — debated their respective party’s prospects in the upcoming August 14 partisan primaries.

The names Tanya Bjork and Keith Gilkes rarely appear in print, but each has guided the campaigns of challengers and incumbents for years within Wisconsin — and have become friends in the process.

Bjork, a longtime Democratic consultant for candidates at both state and national levels, including the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns, and Gilkes, the former chief of staff for Gov. Scott Walker who ran his recall election campaign in 2012, found themselves in agreement on several issues, including who the strongest candidates to defeat incumbents were.

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For the gubernatorial primary, which will see eight Democratic hopefuls challenging Walker, they agreed there was a distinct first tier, consisting of three or four of the most competitive candidates, and then a drop-off.  

Gilkes said state education superintendent Tony Evers, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison and firefighter and union head Mahlon Mitchell stood out among the crowded Democratic field. But, unsurprisingly, he contended that Walker will retain the governorship this year.

“I’m not fearful of any of them in the first tier, and I’m not concerned about any of them, but there are going to be positive attributes, and they’re going to run a competitive race,” Gilkes said.

Bjork agreed with Gilkes’ first tier, but chose not to specify which candidate would pose the strongest challenge to Walker. Despite a large number of candidates, she predicted the Democrats will quickly unite behind the victorious candidate after August 14 in order to defeat Walker.

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As for the U.S. Senate race, Republican voters will have the choice between state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and businessman Kevin Nicholson. Again, both Bjork and Gilkes agreed that Vukmir will likely win, but diverged on who will be heading to Washington D.C. come November.

Gilkes was most fearful of the prospects of the Senate race. He joined Tommy Thompson’s 2012 Senate campaign after a financially and politically tolling primary against Madison businessman Eric Hovde, and he said he fears that the Republicans are on the same path with Vukmir and Nicholson.

“I think everyone in our party’s number one concern is the GOP nominee emerging bruised, battered and broke,” Gilkes said.

Bjork, conversely, was “bullish” about the Democrats’ chances, not just in securing the governorship and retaining Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s seat, but also retaking a majority in the state Senate.

The voters’ enthusiasm will largely make up for the party’s lack of money this time around, Bjork predicted, and said the Democratic electorate is more motivated than the Republican electorate.

“The stakes are much higher and the divisions are much deeper because the stakes are higher,” Bjork said. “But also, we’re not screwing around on the edges on a lot of these policy decisions that are being made. And we’re not talking about whether the tax code is going to change an eighth of a percent. Were talking about whether there’s going to be unions or not.”

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Gilkes didn’t dispute that the wind was in the face of the Republicans and at the back of the Democrats, saying Wisconsin — a deeply purple state that voted for Obama one cycle and for Donald Trump the next — may be in the middle of a cyclical tide shift of power from one side to the other.

Although Gilkes was less optimistic about defeating Baldwin than he was about Republicans holding the state Senate, Assembly and governorship, he said it ultimately comes down to the candidates — and operatives like himself and Bjork — doing their jobs. 

“[Winning is] all predicated on the ability of that candidate to connect with the voters and raise the money to get their message out,” Gilkes said. “And if they can’t do those two fundamental things, they’re never going to win.”