Should Walker Be Worried?
Does he face an unstoppable “blue wave”? Maybe.
It was back in 2012 that Democrats were ecstatic about collecting more than 900,000 signatures demanding Gov. Scott Walker’s recall, in what seemed a mighty wave of opposition to his law decimating collective bargaining rights for public workers. But Walker won the recall election with 53 percent of the vote, sweeping 60 of 72 counties.
Which is worth remembering now that everyone is touting a “blue wave” that gained a thumping victory — a margin of 12 percentage points — for Rebecca F. Dallet, the Democrats’ choice for state Supreme Court Justice.
“If Walker thought a small little Senate district up in the northwestern part of the state going Democratic for first time [in decades] was a wake-up call, this would be a Category 8 hurricane,” chortled Scot Ross, the liberal leader of One Wisconsin Now, in a story by the Washington Post.
This was in a story headlined, “Democrats just won another big race in Wisconsin — and Republicans are panicking,” which was echoed in stories by CNN (“Big win by liberals in Wisconsin is bad news for GOP and Scott Walker”), Business Insider (“Republicans are freaking out about an upset that could be the start of a ‘blue wave’”) and Salon (“Scott Walker in trouble? Wisconsin Democrats ‘feeling very hopeful’ after election win”).
But is he really at risk? Or was this just a calculated way to gain national attention and solicit campaign dollars from conservatives across the country? As the Post story noted: “For all of Walker’s alarm-bell-ringing, Republicans close to him say he’s not reading too much into losing this seat. There is plenty of data that shows Democrats winning judicial races in the spring and Republicans going on to have a good November.”
Certainly, Dallet’s victory in so many counties that supported Donald Trump in 2016 has to worry Walker. But voters in this ever-unpredictable state often flip in ways the pundits don’t expect. Trump lost the spring GOP presidential primary in Wisconsin to Ted Cruz and not one poll leading up to November 2016 election showed him winning Wisconsin. But he did.
The dynamics of the Dallet vs Michael Screnock contest were pretty specific to that race. For starters, Dallet had a long history as a tough-on-crime judge and wasn’t a classic liberal. She was also a far more attractive candidate than Screnock, both in terms of physical looks (Screnock’s oft-used photo suggested the fat-faced nerd who got picked on by the students) and her energetic personality; as veteran political reporter Steve Walters has written, “Screnock’s quiet, low-key campaign style drives some veteran Republican campaign strategists crazy.” (Screnock’s name, too, isn’t all that attractive –and yes, these things influence voters.) Finally, Screnock was a no-show at too many forums, suggesting he couldn’t handle tough questions.
The final tallies, I suspect, may show a somewhat bigger spending lead for Screnock. But Walker is likely to have a massive financial advantage in his reelection campaign. He will probably raise at least $30 million and whichever of the nine (!) current Democratic candidates wins in the August primary will have to quickly pivot to raise money for the November general election. I wouldn’t be surprised if Walker has a 10-to-1 advantage in campaign cash.
Still, money doesn’t always win elections. If the wave that has helped Democrats win seats in Republican-leaning districts across the country continues until November, Walker will have a real fight on his hands. And that’s when his unwillingness to reach out to all the people could hurt him.
Unlike former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who was constantly looking to expand his support, broaden the Republican tent, and drive up his voting totals, Walker has concentrated almost religiously on his base, even if that means consistently low approval ratings. His approval rating stands a 47 percent, according to the last Marquette University Law School poll, and has hovered below 50 percent for most of his second term.
Walker went all in on Foxconn, and that issue may be the most important in the race for governor. Walker has committed $4.1 billion in state and local spending to get what is touted as a $10 billion plant, but under the law could be as small as a $9 billion plant. That’s a cost of $1,774 per household in Wisconsin.
Those same rural voters who favored Act 10’s reduction in public employee benefits seem unlikely to look favorably at a plan that costs them so much to deliver jobs in one southeastern county, to an area most of them probably think gets too much government help already.
Moreover, the entire Foxconn investment completely contradicts Walker’s leading campaign factoid, the state’s historically low unemployment. If unemployment is so low, why spend $4.1 billion to get more jobs?
That issue, along with Walker’s refusal to allow special elections for two Republican-leaning districts, and which led him to be chastised by three different courts for violating the law, strike me as issues that will have traction. What they have in common is an administration that divides the state into those are for or against the ruling Republican orthodoxy.
Screnock’s loss, at the very least, suggests there may be voters who are tired of that. And Walker really can’t afford to lose any supporters. He may need all of that $30 million — and more — to convince people that it’s not time for a change.
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