At the end of August, the Marquette University Law School poll — which has developed an enviable reputation for predicting the behavior of voters in the Badger State — released results which again show the gubernatorial race in Wisconsin in an absolute statistical dead heat. Democrat candidate Mary Burke is about a percentage point ahead with “likely” voters, and Scott Walker is slightly ahead (by about the same margin) with “registered” voters. Dr. Charles Franklin, director of the poll, points out the remarkable lack of movement: upwards of 45% support Burke, and upwards of 45% support Walker, and it has been so for months.
This is especially remarkable considering the huge amount of money which both sides have already poured into television and radio ads, as well as the vast get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort being mounted by both sides. Wisconsin is a swing state which in recent years has swung rather violently in both directions. The last presidential election in which Wisconsin voted for a Republican was in 1988. In 2010, the Democrats held every state-wide electoral office save one (the attorney general); they held majorities in both houses of the state legislature; and Wisconsin’s eight federal representatives were divided between five Democrats and three Republicans. But in November of that year, everything turned over. When the dust had settled, the Republicans had taken every statewide office save three (secretary of state, director of public instruction, and one U.S. senator), held majorities in both houses of the state legislature, and five of the federal representatives were now Republicans.
The shocked and enraged Democrats mounted a controversial recall election the next year (the earliest permissible under state law) against the governor, lieutenant governor, and key state senators (the most vulnerable house of the state legislature). Walker won the recall by more votes than he had the general election, becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive such a recall.
So, one might think, the matter is decided. Walker is the governor, and more popular than before. This would also appear logical if one simply looks at some numbers: at the end of eight years of Democrat rule, in 2010, the state faced a budges deficit of $3.6B; greatly tightened regulations and one of the highest tax regimes in the country (Wisconsin was the fourth-most taxed state) combined to drive businesses from the state and gave pause to anyone rashly considering locating in it; well over 100,000 private sector jobs left a state with a population of just under 5.75 million people; and unemployment was 9.2%, well above the national average. Now, in 2014, the state has a balanced budget. Wisconsin is the only state in the union to have a fully funded public employee pension fund. Taxes have been cut every year since the governor was elected (Wisconsin is now number 10 on the list of most highly taxed states), and Wisconsin has a projected budget surplus of $912M, which is gradually being returned to the taxpayers in more cuts. The state university system tuition has been frozen for the last three years, and much of the regulatory brush has been cleared. Over 100,000 new private sector jobs have been created, and Wisconsin is now rated third in the Midwest in private-sector job creation, rather than near the bottom.
Democrat candidate Mary Burke was the secretary of commerce in the previous administration, and presided over that disastrous economy.
So what is hard to get? Why are the numbers so stubbornly close?
The answer is two-fold: first, the national Democratic Party has taken note of the very dramatic repudiation of its traditional high-tax, big-government policies and the results which have been achieved. The man who engineered and pushed through those changes and achieved two historic election victories in a state so previously dark blue has them deeply concerned, not least because of all the talk of a Walker presidential campaign in 2016. Hence, vast amounts of outside money, from union funds and big donors, have been pouring into the Democrat coffers in the state.
The second reason is another number in the Marquette poll: despite the tightness of the numbers, fully a third of the Wisconsin electorate says that they do not know enough about Mary Burke and her policies, and could yet change their minds. This presents a golden opportunity for the Walker campaign, one which it is not being slow to pick up: defining Mary Burke.
Burke has been cagey and vague about her actual policy proposals, trying to be all things to all people. This, combined with the indisputable fact that she is a classic “limousine liberal” from a wealthy industrial family (they manufacture Trek bicycles), causes deep suspicion of her on the left wing of the Democratic Party. Despite her being the hand-picked candidate of the party elite, she nonetheless faced a challenger from the left in the August primary, one who did surprisingly better than most had predicted.
Walker is vulnerable in two areas: the first results from a stated goal during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign that he wished to create 250,000 private sector jobs in his first term. The general continuing malaise in the nation’s economy and repeated court challenges from the environmental left concerning a mining proposal which would bring tens of thousands of jobs to the state — many of them in the very depressed northwestern part of the state — combine to make that number unlikely. The local press and Democrat pressure groups insist on treating it as a failed campaign promise.
To this, the Walker campaign has responded by noting that, during a period when Mary Burke served in an executive capacity in her family’s firm, the firm decided to close a local manufacturing plant and farm the jobs out to China. (The plant had been opened with an $800,000-plus loan from the Doyle administration, most of which was later forgiven.) Ms. Burke can either claim executive experience in the private sector and take responsibility for that decision, or she can claim (as she has done) that she had nothing to do with it. She can’t have both.
The other vulnerability is a “John Doe” probe which was launched at Walker’s request into the administration of Milwaukee County when he was county executive, after one of his aides reported some possible financial irregularities. The Democrat district attorney of Milwaukee County used the very broad scope of the Wisconsin law to expand the probe into a political witch hunt, trying to tie financial irregularities, campaign law violations, or any other sort of dirt to Walker. He failed in all counts after years of effort, being shut down both by a state appeals judge and by a federal judge, who noted that the prosecutorial theory under which the investigation had proceeded involved activities which are neither a state nor a federal crime.
The prosecutorial overreach resulted in a countersuit by conservative groups who had also been targeted under the probe, spearheaded by Americans for Prosperity chief Eric O’Keefe. This has resulted in previously sealed documents from the original investigation being released as part of discovery. These have been selectively reported in many press outlets, giving the already discredited legal theory new life in the public sphere.
In this high-stakes off-year election, everything will turn on the GOTV effort; the more motivated side will be the one that wins.