Scott Walker’s 2016 Roadblock: Winning Reelection in 2014

Democrats are aggressively working to undermine the governor before he prepares for a presidential campaign.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker testifies during a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which he chairs, on Thursday, April 14, 2011.
National Journal
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Scott Bland
Feb. 25, 2014, 4:36 p.m.

Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er is be­ing hyped as a lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tender, but there is a more press­ing con­cern for the first-term gov­ernor. Walk­er’s 2014 reelec­tion is no guar­an­tee, and faces a ser­i­ous chal­lenge from one of the Demo­crats’ stronger gubernat­ori­al re­cruits this year.

Two straight Mar­quette Law School polls have shown Walk­er with 47 per­cent of the vote — high enough to be the fa­vor­ite, but low enough that he’s vul­ner­able in a Demo­crat­ic-friendly state. Demo­crats have tapped Mary Burke, a wealthy busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive without much of a polit­ic­al re­cord, to run against the gov­ernor, whose ag­gress­ive battles against labor made him a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure in the state. Burke has already at­trac­ted the at­ten­tion of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, which is spend­ing six fig­ures on at­tack ads. Re­pub­lic­ans hope they’ll be able to define Burke neg­at­ively be­fore she gets the chance to pose a threat to Walk­er.

It would still count as an up­set if he lost this Novem­ber. But while most lead­ing pres­id­en­tial con­tenders don’t have to worry about their reelec­tion, Walk­er will be a lead­ing tar­get for Demo­crats, who hope to at least wound him be­fore he pre­pares for any pres­id­en­tial run. Emails re­leased this month as part of a probe in­to im­prop­er cam­paign prac­tices by Walk­er’s staff in 2010 con­tained troves of in­form­a­tion Demo­crats hope will dam­age the gov­ernor. Burke cri­ti­cized Walk­er on Monday for set­ting “a low bar for cam­paign eth­ics.” (Walk­er was nev­er charged with any­thing, and Re­pub­lic­ans re­cently poin­ted out that Burke is em­ploy­ing a staffer con­victed of cam­paign­ing on state time.)

“I don’t talk to a lot of people in either party who think things are a slam dunk,” said Bri­an Schim­ming, a vice chair­man of the state Re­pub­lic­an Party. “But nobody’s bet­ting against him, that’s for sure.”

Wis­con­sin’s po­lar­ized elect­or­ate ex­plains the two sides of that coin. The state’s large pop­u­la­tion of lib­er­al Demo­crats gives it an over­all blue tinge, but there are also many con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans, among whom Walk­er is very pop­u­lar. Re­cently, the gov­ernor’s poll num­bers have been re­mark­ably re­si­li­ent. He sur­vived an ex­pens­ive, bit­ter re­call elec­tion less than two years in­to his first term, and has main­tained job-ap­prov­al rat­ings of 48 per­cent or high­er for the past six months, ac­cord­ing to Mar­quette. Their latest poll, in Janu­ary, put him at 51 per­cent.

“The chal­lenge for Mary Burke and Demo­crats is if they can shake people loose” from that status quo, said Charles Frank­lin, the dir­ect­or of the Mar­quette Law School poll. Giv­en how closely di­vided the state is, mov­ing the num­bers just a hand­ful of per­cent­age points makes the race a dead heat, Frank­lin con­tin­ued.

An­oth­er telling in­dic­at­or: 54 per­cent of those sur­veyed in Janu­ary said the state was go­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, versus 40 per­cent who said it was on the wrong track. “The bur­den is on them to say things are worse than they were when he took of­fice, and people aren’t say­ing that,” Schim­ming said.

Still, Walk­er’s been stuck at 47 per­cent of the vote in the most re­cent polls, while the largely un­known Burke has got­ten 45 per­cent and 41 per­cent, re­spect­ively. Demo­crats have car­ried the Badger State in six straight pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, and lib­er­al Sen. Tammy Bald­win com­fort­ably dis­patched former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson in an open-seat race in 2012. There are too many re­li­able Demo­crat­ic voters in Wis­con­sin for Walk­er to build up a su­per-safe lead, even though his job rat­ings are ro­bust.

A Walk­er de­feat wouldn’t be the first time a pres­id­en­tial con­tender lost an elec­tion right be­fore their big op­por­tun­ity. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. George Al­len of Vir­gin­ia spent 2005 and part of 2006 get­ting eyed as pres­id­en­tial ma­ter­i­al — be­fore his “macaca” mo­ment and a Demo­crat­ic wave turfed him out of elec­ted of­fice. Flor­ida Gov. Charlie Crist was on some GOP pres­id­en­tial short lists in 2009, but he chose to run for Sen­ate in­stead of reelec­tion and ended up get­ting chased out of the Re­pub­lic­an Party by Marco Ru­bio. (He’s now run­ning for gov­ernor again — as a Demo­crat.)

Walk­er’s abil­ity to win a Demo­crat­ic-friendly state while push­ing for­ward with con­ser­vat­ive budget re­forms in­stantly make him a lead­ing con­tender for na­tion­al of­fice. But he has to fin­ish busi­ness with­in the state be­fore those pro­spects have a chance of be­com­ing real­ity.


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