Tightening Race in Wisconsin Could Shape Walker's Presidential Aspirations

Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, who survived a 2012 recall effort by groups angered over his successful push to end withholding of dues paid by state employees to their unions, is set to square off against Democratic challenger Mary Burke for Election Day honors this November.

And recent polling shows that the recall victor could face a tough fight to keep his job this time around.

Burke, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s nominee for governor, is a current school board member in Madison. She’s also a former top executive at Wisconsin’s Trek Bicycle Corporation, a company founded by her father in the 1970s that has since become the country’s largest bike maker.

Walker, former Milwaukee County executive, the county’s top leader, is clearly a man with presidential aspirations. He first came to national attention in 2010 after riding a wave of voter dissatisfaction that saw Wisconsin Republicans take control of the state legislature until a summer 2012 recall election loss tossed control of the upper house, the Senate, back to Democrats.

Walker’s Republicans stormed back, though, cementing their grip on state government in November 2012 by keeping the legislature’s lower house and recapturing its upper. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says more than $81 million was spent by all sides during that recall.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a recent editorial also projected high spending by Walker and Burke as well as groups sympathetic to their respective campaigns -- most of it “just to air noisy television ads,” the paper observed.

Democratic challenger Burke should present a stiff challenge to Walker. She served as the Badger State’s commerce secretary from 2005 to 2007, a position she was appointed to by Jim Doyle, Walker’s Democratic predecessor.

In an Oct. 7, 2013, campaign video, the Democrat also claims success during her commerce tenure.

“All in all it meant 84,000 more Wisconsin jobs than we have today,” Burke said.

In selecting Burke to carry the fight to Walker, Wisconsin’s Democratic leaders hope the challenger’s business credentials will appeal to centrist voters in both parties as well as an increasingly growing number of independents claiming allegiance to neither major political party.

Burke herself is described by friends and associates as a tireless worker and she spent time in the early 1990s as a consultant in New York and Washington, D.C. Prior to her employment she gained a finance undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School in 1985. Burke is also well-regarded by many for her philanthropic and charitable efforts.

Scott Walker is a relative rarity in high-level state and federal politics, being one of the few leaders of national importance not possessing at least a four-year college degree. He left Wisconsin’s Marquette University in his senior year without finishing studies, though he recently announced an intention to complete his alma mater’s graduation requirements as soon as possible.

Walker deciding to complete his college studies at the age of 46 -- he’ll be 47 this coming November -- perhaps provides a clue that his eyes are fixed on the ultimate prize, the White House, should he triumph over Burke.

The last U.S. president without a college degree was Harry S. Truman, who left office in 1953, and Walker may believe that gaining a degree would silence criticism from national Democrats who say that he’s unqualified for a run for the presidency despite his tenure as Wisconsin governor.

Polling of the battle between Walker and Burke hasn’t yet fully spooled up and what results are available shows a generally competitive race between the two combatants.

A Marquette University poll this week put Walker ahead by 3 points. An April 14-15 poll of likely voters by Magellan Strategies, a Republican-leaning polling firm, showed a tie between Walker and Burke. In early March, Rasmussen Reports, a national polling organization considered sympathetic to Republicans, released its own survey, with another Walker-Burke dead heat the result.