State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D) will run for governor

MADISON (AP) -- One of the 14 Wisconsin state Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois last year to stop a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's proposal curbing public employee union rights is entering the race to challenge him in a recall election.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, which is just north of La Crosse, formally announced her candidacy on Wednesday. She joins former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk as the only two announced Democratic candidates. Several others are considering running, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Vinehout's entry into the race guarantees there would be a Democratic primary. She has never run a statewide race before, while Falk has run twice and has deep support from public sector unions.

Whoever the Democratic nominee is to take on Walker, they will start at a serious financial disadvantage. Walker reported raising $12.1 million since last year and had $2.6 million cash on hand as of Jan. 17.

The recall petitions are in the process of being verified and no date for a primary or general election has been set. Most expect the elections to be in May or later.

Vinehout, 53, is an organic farmer who formerly raised dairy cows and taught health administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Brown in 2006 to win election in the large, mostly rural district in western Wisconsin. She won re-election in 2010 by 439 votes over Ed Thompson, former Gov. Tommy Thompson's brother.

"We need a fresh start and a new attitude in Wisconsin politics and government," Vinehout said in a statement announcing her candidacy.

Her tenure in the Legislature has been marked by some high profile breaks with Democrats.

Most notably, in 2008 Vinehout sided with anti-abortion Republicans in voting against a bill that required pharmacists to fill birth control prescriptions. Vinehout pushed for an exemption if the pharmacist objected to abortion on moral grounds.

Her record on that and other abortion-related issues led NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin to issue a statement last week condemning a potential Vinehout candidacy.

"Vinehout is not the leader we need to end the attacks on women's health launched by Gov. Scott Walker and his anti-choice colleagues in the Legislature," said the group's executive director Lisa Subeck.

Vinehout also was one of just six Democrats in the Senate who voted with Republicans last year to legalize the carrying of concealed weapons. She was one of just two Democrats who supported Walker's proposal last year eliminating state income taxes on health savings accounts.

But Vinehout stood with all of her Democratic colleagues last year when they went to Illinois for three weeks in an ultimately vain attempt to block Walker's union proposal, which spurred massive protests and made Wisconsin the center of the national fight over union rights.

Anger over that proposal has motivated the effort to recall Walker, his lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators. Two Republican senators lost recall elections last year.

Falk announced last month that she was getting into the governor's race. She ran for governor in 2002 but lost in the primary to Jim Doyle. And she was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2006 but lost to Republican J.B. Van Hollen.

Falk's campaign spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walker's campaign spokeswoman also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Vinehout's decision.