Is the governor’s race really a “Battle of the Sexes?”

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- On primary election night, Wisconsin voters sent a clear message: Mary Burke would be the Democratic nominee for governor -- and Susan Happ would be the party's nominee for attorney general. It's the first time two women would be at the top of the ticket.

“I understand the importance and there are many women who blazed the trail before me,” Burke said.  “I am honored to blaze that trail for the young women and girls who are coming after me.”

The gender issue may play a role in the election, according to a series of polls from the Marquette University Law School.  For most of the 2014 election cycle there was a distinct and "gender gap,” with Gov. Scott Walker leading among men by a wide margin and Burke leading among women by a large percentage.  In the latest Marquette poll, the gender gap shrunk.

“Women do see that I care about the issues that matter to women,” Burke said.  “Certainly, I don't think it's the role of governors or politicians to mess with women's health care decisions. Certainly Scott Walker -- when he repealed women's equal pay protections, made it harder for women to make sure there is not pay discrimination in this state.

But the incumbent governor doesn’t think the gender issue will be a difference maker.

"Women or men alike, what people care about are issues that affect their families, personal income going up,” said Gov. Walker.  “That's why we worked hard to lower taxes, improve public education and make sure everyone has access to health care in this state. People should measure the differences, regardless of any other demographic they should look at the differences of who's going to lead this state."

At a recent Republican rally, the Wisconsin Republican Party showcased five Republican women in elected office. They included the incumbent Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. It was a bid to appeal to women voters; a national focus for the Republican party.

A report commissioned this year by two major Republican groups showed a majority of women see the Republican party as "stuck in the past.” The study showed married women without a college degree are the only women who reliably prefer Republicans to Democrats.

RNC national co-chair Sharon Day says the Wisconsin race is about more than the "battle of the sexes."

“I didn't come here to speak as a woman against a woman,” Day said.  “What I came to speak as is an individual against failed policies that Mary Burke would bring to Wisconsin."

According to the Wisconsin Women's Council, in 2010 women held 322 of the 1,455 city council seats, 308 of the 1,680 county board seats, 1,069 of the 2,827 school board seats. 74 percent of town boards and 24 percent of village boards had no women representatives.

“We got to elect some women around here, take care of business,” said U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) at a recent Democratic rally.  “I want my reproductive rights protected.”

On the campaign trail, Burke has received high-profile help from one of the nation's most well-liked women in politics -- Michelle Obama. The first lady highlighted the sharp differences between Burke and Walker on abortion.

“If we don't show up at the polls, this November, if we don't elect leaders like Mary Burke, we will see more folks interfering in womens' private decisions about our health care,” said Michelle Obama.

Republican women in Wisconsin bristle at the suggestion that their party is less welcoming.

“We think it's condescending that they're trying to say women are only concerned with reproductive issues,” said State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills).  “That's not true.  Women are concerned about reproductive issues, but they are usually in charge of their home budgets. They care about where their kids go to school, they care about their jobs, they care about their bottom line, they care about the economy, and we think it's time we stood up to the war on women and say, 'look, Scott walker's been a big advocate for women.’”

Indeed polling also shows economic issues like the "pay gap," paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and affordable early childhood education are also driving female voters. But UW-Milwaukee Governmental Affairs Professor Mordecai Lee says the issue of a woman's statewide electability is a settled question,

“It seems to me that the battle is over,” said Lee.  “That we've finally shattered the glass ceiling in Wisconsin politics.'

But Burke says there's one last electoral challenge for Wisconsin women.

“We need to understand that there are some glass ceilings out there, but you know what?  I think they're one's we can break through,” said Burke.