It’s just six months until Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker faces re-election, and he’s struggling. His years in office have been plagued by scandal, and the internal emails released as a part of the “John Doe” probe into possible illegal campaigning and coordination are doing little to help the governor’s already-battered image. Allegations of racism, sexism, and homophobia have been brushed off by Walker’s administration, and poll numbers show an incumbent whose race is in jeopardy.
With the race now neck and neck, both candidates are going to have to appeal to their bases like they never have before and passionately urge them to turn out on Election Day. However, the Burke campaign may have one advantage that has been working well in other states that Walker simply cannot replicate.
The women of Wisconsin.
Walker won his race by against Democratic candidate Tom Barrett by 5 percentage points in the 2010 election, and he beat Barrett, who was once again his challenger, by 7 points in a 2012 recall election. But, despite the fact that Walker’s victory was larger in 2012, he lost with women voters by a greater percentage than he had during his first campaign.
Walker’s vulnerability around women voters is one that many GOP candidates have had to face in the 2012 and 2013 elections, to varying degrees of success. The “war on women” framing used by Democrats and their allies during the most recent election cycles have been highly successful in national and statewide campaigns, and believed to have been a significant contributor not only to President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection and the inability to pick up what were thought to be easy upsets in senate races in Missouri and Indiana, but to Virginia’s 2013 Democratic victories in the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general race as well.
Since the moment he entered office, Walker’s administration has focused on a number of policies that have been particularly detrimental to women’s physical and economic health. Low income women and families found themselves losing insurance coverage and medical options as the BadgerCare program was gutted, primarily to ensure that the state could keep funding away from Planned Parenthood affiliates. The Wisconsin Well Women Program, which provides access to cervical and breast cancer screenings for low-income residents, was also sliced up in 2011. As of July there will be only a “handful” of providers left in the entire state, serving all 72 counties. Then there is Walker’s refusal to allow a state exchange for the Affordable Care Act and his rejections of federal funding to expand Medicaid to ensure more Wisconsinites can get affordable health insurance coverage.
Walker has been just as aggressive when it comes to cutting off access to abortion. In 2012 he signed a bill into law putting restrictions on medication abortion that were so strict that abortion providers stopped offering the procedure for over a year while they tried to understand how to follow the rule without potentially breaking the law. A 2013 omnibus bill that forced mandatory ultrasounds on pregnant people seeking to end a pregnancy also included a provision that would require doctors doing the abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, a provision that was likely to close 3 of the state’s then 5 clinics. The bill was fast-tracked through the legislature and Walker quietly signed it on the Fourth of July holiday weekend, although it was immediately caught up in court and then blocked by the judge.
His policies that harm women haven’t just been about reproductive rights and health rights, but have been economic, too. He signed a repeal of the state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which added protections to ensure women received the same wage as men when they are hired for similar work. His legacy of targeting organized labor directly impacts women, who make up the majority of state and local government employee jobs, and where union membership helps minimize the wage gap so frequently seen in other industries.
Overall, Walker has been anything but kind to the women in Wisconsin, and now women’s rights groups are preparing to use that history to their advantage. “I think that repealing the Equal Pay Enforcement Act was a mistake,” said Dayna Long, President of Wisconsin NOW, the state branch of the National Organization for Women. “Instead of standing up for working people who are being discriminated against on the job, Walker has made it more difficult for them to get justice through the courts. It’s impossible to justify that decision.”
Long cites Walker’s opposition to pay equality, his refusal to help uninsured Wisconsinites access quality, affordable health care coverage and his support of school vouchers, while slashing the public school budgets as significant issues that will keep women from voting for him come November. “I do think that Walker’s record could cost him the race,” said Long. “Not only has Walker led an onslaught of attacks on reproductive rights, but he’s made callous, seemingly petty choices, like defunding Planned Parenthood, turning down federal funding for Badger Care, dismantling collective bargaining for public workers, and repealing equal pay. I don’t think women are going to forget those decisions. Nothing about his policies is pro-family or pro-women – In some cases he’s really gone out of his way to hurt women. And women have a lot of voting power in this state.”
“I think we are going to see as more polling comes out that his extreme agenda when it comes to women is going to turn the dial with voters,” said Jenni Dye, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. “Fifty percent of our voters are obviously going to have an impact on this race, especially when he is running against someone who has a history of support for pro-choice organizations.”
Both Dye and Long believe that the recall election wasn’t a clear indicator of how 2014 results might look, because the race was framed not on whether or not voters approved of Walker’s agenda, but whether an elected official should be removed from office before the end of a term for something short of criminal behavior or gross ethical violations. “That’s not the debate we are going to have in this election,” said Dye. “In this election it is going to be about these issues, and it’s going to be about whether Wisconsin is moving in the right direction.”
She pointed to Walker’s job gains numbers, which are likely to fall far short of what he promised during his campaign, as the sort of metrics that the 2014 race will be focused on, as well as the impact of workers having less money to spend, public school defunding and his blocking of health care reform.
“All of this combined, plus his attacks on women and other social issues add up to a really heated race,” she said.
The key will be educating women and getting them engaged in the race and out to the polls to vote. It was an effort that was highly successful in Virginia in 2013 in getting Democrat Terry McAuliffe elected governor, and one that Wisconsin women’s rights groups hope to replicate. “We definitely learned a lot from the work our [NARAL] national and state affiliate did in their work in the state gubernatorial race in Virginia,” said Dye. “We are going to take those lessons learned and implement them here in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin NOW is just as eager to get women informed and voting. “We’re very eager to highlight some of the bills that were quietly signed into law in the last four years, like the repeal of Equal Pay Enforcement, and last summer’s mandatory ultrasound and admitting privileges bill,” said Long. “We haven’t forgotten and we’re not done talking about it.”
With a focus on health care, schools and jobs, Democratic candidate Mary Burke’s campaign is already looking to engage women voters on each policy plank.
“Absolutely, women are a key target for us,” said Joe Zepecki, Communications Director for Burke for Wisconsin. “We are thrilled to have strong, early backing from both EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood. We’re already seeing great feedback and response to Mary’s messaging on protecting the freedom of women to make their own health care decisions and on equal pay. Due to Walker’s repeal [of equal pay protections], Wisconsin is now one of only five states that lack this basic protection, which Mary will fight to restore. I’m sure as November grows closer we’ll be taking advantage of the full range of tactics to mobilize this key demographic.”
The 2014 governor’s race will be an uphill battle for Mary Burke, though a recent poll shows her tied with Walker. Trying to unseat an incumbent governor is always difficult, and midterm elections traditionally favor the party out of power in the White House. If Burke does pull off a victory, however, she’ll be doing it with the help of Wisconsin women unhappy with the way that Walker’s policies have hurt them over the last four years. And unfortunately for Walker, it looks like that may be a lot of Wisconsin women.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women’s Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin’s articles have appeared at Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, Ms. Magazine, In These Times, Truth Out, AlterNet, RH Reality Check and other publications.