In less than three months, Scott Walker will either be a top-tier candidate for president of the United States, or he will be forgotten, consigned to a footnote of history.
Right now, it is impossible to predict which is more likely.
Polls show the Wisconsin Republican governor tied with his Democratic opponent, Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke, with less than 90 days to go before voters head to the polls, even though Burke has been outspent and remains little-known to many voters.
“I think there is some truth to the claim that these polls have oversampled Democrats,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican consultant out of out Madison, Wisconsin. “But having said that, this is a close race. That is not a closely-held secret around here.”
Wisconsin used to be known for a sort of sunny Midwestern moderate consensus, with governors of both parties routinely winning by large majorities. But politicos on both sides of the aisle say those days are long gone, and that ironically enough, the polarized current situation is largely something that Walker helped create after he ushered through a controversial law in 2011 that stripped public sector unions of the right to collectively bargain. Weeks of protest followed, and a recall vote that Walker barely survived.
“We used to be a one-third/one-third/one-third state: Republicans, Democrats, and Independents,” said Jeff Mayers, the editor of a popular news site on Wisconsin politics. “That is not the case anymore. You are either for Walker or against him. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground anymore.”
How divisive is the governor? Polls show that more than half of the voters disapprove of the job he is doing, and more than half disapprove of him personally, even while 54 percent of Wisconsin voters think that the state is headed in the right direction.
“We had never gone through anything like that,” said Mayers, referring to the 2012 recall. He pointed to Tommy Thompson, a Republican governor in the 1990s, “Who always wanted to expand the base. Walker wants to work the margins. The dynamics have changed. [Walker] made drastic changes. That is what led to this environment.”
And although Act 10, the 2011 law that was thought to be a death blow to the state’s union power, and the subsequent recall election helped cleave the Wisconsin electorate in two, partisans on both sides of the aisle say that it has not come up much on the campaign trail.
When asked if Act 10 was dominating the campaign conversation, Joe Zepecki, a spokesman for the Burke campaign, responded, “No, no, no, no. That is something national reporters want to talk about. This is an election about jobs and the promises Scott Walker made about job creation that he hasn’t kept.”
Walker promised to create 250,000 jobs by the end of his first term. As the election approaches, the state has created about 40 percent of that total, a figure that lags behind most of the rest of the nation.
But Burke isn’t talking much about restoring the unions’ power on the campaign trail either, a testament both to the fact that overturning Act 10 will be impossible unless large numbers of Republican lawmakers are thrown out as well—unlikely, considering most have been redistricted into safe seats—and to the fact that many of the measures remain popular.
Labor leaders in Wisconsin say that they have been able to maintain their membership despite Walker’s efforts, and are trying to mobilize their members for a big fight ahead in the fall. But it remains an open question if they will be able to, since in addition to limiting the ability of public sector unions to collectively bargain, one of Act 10’s provisions ended automatic union dues deductions. Analysts say it will be necessary for national unions to come in and fill the gap, since local labor coffers are depleted, and since Walker, a favorite of the Koch brothers and other conservative big spenders, is likely to have all of the resources he needs.
“I hope the citizens of Wisconsin take a look at all of the changes that have been put in place over the past four years and make the decision if this is the direction they want the state to go,” said Kim Kohlhaas, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents over 17,000 public sector workers.
She however is not hopeful that her union will soon see their rights restored, regardless of who wins the governor’s mansion.
“I don’t think anybody thinks that we are going to be able to go back to the way things were,” Kohlhaas said. “Act 10 won’t be overturned no matter who the governor is. The only way to get collective bargaining rights is to change the legislative dynamic in the state, and that is going to take quite a few years.”
If Act 10 is a non-issue on the campaign trail, so is Walker’s series of ethics troubles that have made him the target of a John Doe investigation into whether or not he illegally coordinated government and campaign activities during the recall election. In May, a district court halted the investigation, a decision that is under appeal.
Walker has been mentioned as a likely presidential contender, and with his conservative economic record and unbending support for most issues important to evangelical voters, would be a major player in a Republican field in 2016. But his campaign team seems surprised at Burke’s strength, launching a barrage of negative ads that label her “Millionaire Mary,” an attack that has brought criticism from some members of Walker’s fellow Wisconsin Republicans, who say that the attack disparages wealth in the same way that Democrats attacked Mitt Romney’s private sector success in 2012.
Two of the top political prognosticators—The Rothenberg Political Report and the Cook Political Report—have recently labeled the race a toss-up. A third, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, still rates it a “Lean Republican” race.
“Walker has proven that he can win tough elections, and this is a Republican year,” Sabato said. “To beat an incumbent you have to have the right set of characteristics, and Burke doesn’t have any political experience, and she has ties to the unpopular administration of [Walker predecessor] Jim Doyle.’
“She has run a very good campaign, but we are not calling it a toss-up. Not yet anyway.”
Meanwhile, assuming Walker wins, he will have to hit the campaign trail without a massive mandate from his recent re-election in his back pocket. Political analysts are divided over how much this will matter. On the one hand, who will much care, if he wins, how much the margin is? On the other, if he squeaks out a victory in a GOP wave year, Republicans may be skeptical that he has coattails.