Scott Walker is facing re-election for the third time in four years.
Let that fact sink in, and you will begin to understand many things about this pivotal race. Wisconsin is not merely a swing state, it is an odd, unique one. The Republican Party was founded there, yet the last time the state chose a Republican presidential candidate was in 1988. Its largest city, Milwaukee, last had a Republican mayor in 1908. It had a socialist mayor (not left-wing Democrat, but outright socialist) in 1960.
Nonetheless, the relatively conservative Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who pioneered welfare reform in the 1990s, was elected to four terms. When Thompson became George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary, he was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Scott McCallum, who lost his re-election bid to the Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle.
In Doyle’s second-term election in 2006, the Democrats took the state by storm. They held majorities in both houses of the state legislature, held every statewide office save (perhaps ironically) the attorney general, and had five of the state’s eight members of the House of Representatives.
But Doyle’s second term was a disaster. Due to both the economic crash and his policies (including a law requiring companies headquartered in Wisconsin with operations in other states to pay taxes in Wisconsin on the out-of-state operations), the state lost 130,000 jobs and faced an unconstitutional $3.6B budget deficit (Wisconsin’s constitution requires a balanced budget).
In 2010, the tide surged right. Republicans took control of both houses of the state legislature, took every statewide office save three (one senator, the secretary of state, and the director of public instruction), and took five of the eight seats of the House of Representatives delegation.
Ever since, the Democrats have been frothing at the mouth to bring down Scott Walker. His feat of balancing the budget and eliminating the budget deficit through his Act 10 legislation, which greatly limits the collective bargaining rights of the public employee unions, earned him enemies in labor, as well.
The enmity led to the recall election, held in 2012. Scott Walker handily won the recall, and despite the loss of a handful of Republican legislators who also came up for recall, the Republicans retained control of both houses of the state legislature.
Walker won the recall by a wider margin than he did the general election, which was a stinging rebuke to the Democrats and the public employee unions.
Two “John Doe” probes were launched by highly partisan District Attorney of Milwaukee County John Chisholm during Walker’s first term, despite absolutely no evidence of any actual wrong-doing by Walker. Few politicians have been as thoroughly vetted by their opposition. The prospect of an honest politician being elected with a thoroughly conservative message in a state as deeply “purple” as Wisconsin is obviously terrifying to the Democrats. They remember just as well as conservatives do that Ronald Reagan won 44 states in defeating Jimmy Carter, and 39 states for his second term against Mondale. Walker has been widely discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Hence, this election assumes critical importance, as the unions thirst for revenge and the national Democratic Party considers Walker to be enemy number one. But who could run against him?
Enter Mary Burke, the daughter of a wealthy industrial family (Trek Bicycle) whose only experience in public office was a stint as Doyle’s commerce secretary in 2005-2007. She is currently a member of the school board in Madison, the state capital, a hotbed of left-wing activity. She has been challenged from the Left for refusing to give red meat to the Democratic base about restoring union rights, but she is now receiving vast sums of cash from outside the state (despite her otherwise decrying outside “interference” in Wisconsin politics).
To reassure the left of the Democratic base, Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama (twice), and Barack Obama have appeared in the state campaigning for her. While nearly every other Democratic office seeker is running away from the president and his policies, Mary Burke appears to need his help.
Walker is being outspent. He needs more help from the national party, and has expressed annoyance at what he sees as lackluster support at the national level, particularly by the Republican Governors Association (RGA). In the 2010 election the RGA spent some $5.2M in support of his first campaign, and nearly $9M in support of his recall election. They are expected to spend about $8M in this election.
But Walker would argue that it is not enough. For one thing, the margin of his victory in 2012 is somewhat illusory; from the beginning Walker has contended that many of the additional votes were not necessarily in support of his policies but instead were votes against the expense and annoyance of the recall. The polls have seldom showed either side leading beyond the margin of error, and the most recent edition of the prestigious Marquette University Law School poll shows the race in a dead heat, 47% to 47% among likely voters.
Everything rides on turnout. The volunteers are working their hearts out, but Walker needs help.