APPLETON, WI—Dressed in a red zip-up with a Bucky Badger emblem and his go-to cowboy boots, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stood in a gutted, garage-like building in the Green Bay Packer heartland pleading for his political survival.
“Things could go heading backwards right away,” Walker said to a crowd of 40 people. “We got to get that message out. We have to get that out even if we are standing in line at the grocery store. In fact I want you to go out and vote 10 times for me. I’m asking you to vote once yourself and find nine more people.”
Walker’s appeals to the crowd came a day after former President Barack Obama rallied for his gubernatorial opponent, Tony Evers, in Milwaukee—an event Walker explained to the small, mostly older group of people in Appleton as simply another way the Democrats were “targeting” him.
“They’d love nothing then to beat us here,” Walker said, eliciting several loud “boos” from Make America Great Again hat wearers. But the rest of his stump speech seemed to fall on tired ears.
That fatigue is exactly what the governor’s team is worried about in the final week before the election. That is why they’ve embarked on a drastic strategy: try to get moderates to vote for Scott Walker. In gentler political times in this purple state, this wouldn’t, of course, seem out of the ordinary. But four years after winning his re-election with ease, Walker finds himself in a far different political position.
Since then, he’s run for president. It was a short-lived campaign, but that race, which he was initially hailed as the second coming of Ronald Reagan, may be one of the reason he’s now in the fight of his life. In the months he campaigned for the Oval Office, Walker dropped in the polls so much so that he is still making up lost ground. In the end, it seems, parts of the state have fallen out of love with the folksy fiscal conservative.
Now he finds himself neck and neck with Tony Evers, a longtime educator from a town 50 miles southeast of Appleton, according to recent polling. And even though the Republicans seem to have maintained their hold in this area so far in the campaign—low voter turnout could mean a loss for Walker here, and statewide, come Nov. 6.
What’s made matters worse is that Democrats in the state have launched a massive campaign, spending tens of millions of dollars, to oust him from office.
It’s an effort years in the making, beginning in 2011 after he passed union-busting legislation that stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights and forced them to contribute to their pensions. The Democrats got close to unseating Walker in 2012 during a recall vote, but the governor walked away in the end with a nearly seven point win. And two years later, despite the efforts levied against him, Walker was re-elected with similar numbers.
But fast forward to the 2018 midterm election, and the governor and his team seem to be scrambling.
The fact that Walker is in Appleton, a small town in the Green Bay area where Aaron Rodgers is God, speaking to just a few dozen people reveals just how much is at stake. The team admits openly that they are worried. The Walker website even has a pop-up add that reads: “We’re down in the polls. Help us fight back.”
Data shows that the governor is lagging in areas that once supported him outright but began to waver in 2015, according to data from the Marquette Law School Poll.
Charles Franklin, the director of the poll, said his team is set to come out with new numbers Wednesday. For now, he said, it looks like Walker is holding steady in the Green Bay area and in the Milwaukee suburbs, similar to last elections. But he is down in places like Wausau, a Republican stronghold, La Crosse, a swing county, and the western media markets by nearly 14 points since his re-election in 2014.
Although the sample size is small in those locations, Franklin says the significant change seems to be represent a slight shift in those areas toward a Democratic vote. However, he said, there’s a chance those areas will swing back in favor of Walker, especially after the recent rally with President Trump.
Long story short: It’s a toss-up. At least for now.
And Walker isn’t taking any chances.
In order to stay in office, Walker is going to need to not only pull out strong numbers in the areas where he normally wins, but to persuade independents who voted for him in previous elections to stay on board.
So, he’s trying various tactics to appeal to voters including adopting policies Walker that are reminiscent of plans hailed by his democratic colleagues in the legislature.
In the past month, the governor and his team have departed from their previous campaigns, spending millions of dollars in the final weeks to launch television ads to appeal to moderate voters. The ads show Walker, dressed in a retro Green Bay Packers jacket, making a promise to protect pre-existing conditions—an idea most other Republicans are across the country have actively fought against. He’s also promising more money to better the state’s roads and to fund public schools—all subjects he’s been attacked for not addressing head-on in recent years.
But Democrats have caught on to Walker’s last ditch effort strategy and have gone in for the kill. On Friday in Milwaukee during a rally for the party, President Obama slammed Walker, attacking him for promoting his plan to protect pre-existing conditions in healthcare coverage.
“Now Republicans are running ads that say they he is going to protect pre-existing conditions but their party is literally suing the government to take away those protections,” Obama said to the crowd at the rally.
Walker fought back against that notion in Appleton the next day. “We can protect people with pre-existing conditions without protecting the failure that is Obamacare,” he said.
It’s not just Walker’s plans for pre-existing conditions seems to have borrowed from Democrats.
Walker has called for a new tax credit of up to $5,000 over five years for college graduates who live and work in Wisconsin. He has also wants to prove a state child care tax credit of up to $6,000 per year per family to match the federal child care tax credit—a plan similar to the one Democrats have proposed in the state legislature.
It’s not enough that Walker promises not to raise taxes, he wants people to know his opponent, Evers, is after people’s money.
“Hold on to your wallets and purses,” Walker said here in Appleton Saturday. “Taxes are going to go way up. Tony’s taxes are a recipe for going back to a recession.”
That same motto is strewn across signs on farmland on I-94 West near Milwaukee:
Tony’s. Taxes. Will. Cost. Jobs.
Confusingly, though, Evers has actually proposed cutting taxes for the middle class. Walker’s team has chalked it up to a hoax.
For at least some of his supporters, the strategy of reminding people why the other side is wrong for Wisconsin, seems to have worked. Walker’s fans in Appleton say they’ve gained comfort in knowing that their state is headed in the right direction and they want to keep it that way.
“We don’t want to go back to what we used to have goin’ on,” said Mark, an older attendee at the Appleton field office rally, who didn’t want to give his full name to the “fake media.” “We gotta keep it goin’.”
But Walker’s support for President Trump is scaring some of the biggest and most powerful industry in the state.
Trump’s tariffs have put farmers here in a tough spot. According to state data, about 89 percent of milk in Wisconsin is turned into cheese and that product is exported en masse to Mexico, a country targeted by Trump’s new tough economic policies. The president has promised his sweeping new NAFTA-like deal will smooth things over for local economies, but it is unclear when local farms will begin to feel an economic reprieve.
Still, the governor has gained support from some of the major players in the state, including manufacturers, who have described him as the “architect” of Wisconsin’s transformation. It is a golden rallying point for Walker and one he hopes will be enough to get people to come out and vote for him once again.
“There are more people employed in the state of Wisconsin in 2018 than ever before,” Walker said in Appleton Saturday. “When we say Wisconsin is working, we mean it literally.”
But the governor’s pronouncements, including that the economy is stronger than ever with an unemployment rate of 3 percent, is falling flat among people in places like Janesville where the local economy is still recovering from the closure of the General Motors plant. According to newly released federal data, manufacturing job numbers are up since last year, but people are still struggling to find work for their particular set of skills.
It’s unclear whether Walker’s efforts to appeal to a broader, more moderate audience will be enough. The Democrats in the state see now—when Walker’s numbers are teetering—as their time to cash in.
“We’re going to win this thing,” Evers said in Milwaukee. “We’re going to take back Wisconsin because it is time for a change.”
Across town in Appleton on Saturday, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, who has pulled way ahead in the polls, was also campaigning on her promise to protect not only pre-existing conditions, but also social security and medicare benefits. And after his event with Obama in Milwaukee, Evers made the rounds, calling for better funding for schools.
The school issue—and the funding of the classrooms—has united the Democratic fight for the midterm election in Wisconsin. The party has built on the anger festering among supporters in 2011 when Walker passed Act 10 —a law that slashed collective bargaining rights, compensation, retirement and health insurance for public sector employees, including teachers.
Walker’s legislation sparked protests across the state and drew thousands of them to the state Capitol in Madison where opponents slept in the rotunda, calling on the governor to leave office.
It’s been six years, but that anger is still ever present among public workers in Wisconsin, especially teachers. And it might fuel enough momentum for Evers to beat Walker next week.
“We really want to get that dude out,” said Laticia Walters, a 52-year-old public school teacher in Milwaukee. “I want to retire. And we need someone who is going to advocate for our kids. I want to go back to the good ol' days.”
Still, Democrats in the state will admit that with Walker, it’s not over til the votes are counted.
And he knows it, too.
“I hope and pray you can help us,” he said to the crowd in Appleton. “This is going to be a tough election. We’re counting on you to make that difference. I know you can, because we’ve done it before.”