Scott Walker was among the first to trip the alarm.
The Wisconsin governor started sending smoke signals about a “wake up call for Republicans” in the state back in January, when a Democrat won a state Senate special election in a rural, red district. A subsequent double-digit Democratic victory for a state Supreme Court seat showed the “risk of a #BlueWave,” Walker cautioned.
In April, the two-term incumbent predicted that this year’s reelection battle “is going to be tougher than any one I have been involved with, including the  recall.”
On Thursday, Walker received the latest sign that he may be right. An NBC News-Marist poll brought the worst news in what has, so far, been a relatively smooth race for him.
Only 34 percent of Wisconsin’s registered voters said Walker deserves a third term, while 61 percent said it was “time to give a new person a chance.” In a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with state schools superintendent Tony Evers, the Democratic frontrunner, Evers led Walker 54 percent to 41 percent.
Though he believes the NBC poll’s sample was “too Democratic,” the results, said Wisconsin Republican strategist Bill McCoshen, “should send another wake-up call to the GOP base not to take the Governor’s race for granted.”
The Democratic Governor’s Association is investing heavily in the election, setting aside $4.5 million for ad buys for whichever of the eight Democrats still in the race wins the Aug. 14 primary.
DGA communications director Jared Leopold told TPM that the Wisconsin gubernatorial contest “will be one of the biggest and most competitive races of the cycle.”
Walker’s campaign, the Republican Governor’s Association, and the Wisconsin Republican Party did not return TPM’s multiple requests for comment.
No one thinks the road ahead will be easy for the eventual Democratic nominee. A Marquette Law School poll out last week had Walker a few points ahead in head-to-head match-ups against all eight of his Democratic opponents.
A powerful incumbent who has done much to advance a hard-right agenda—eviscerating unions, restricting abortion access and voting rights, stripping environmental protections—Walker has the full backing of the Wisconsin GOP. He has $6 million cash on hand, and has for months been churning out sunny TV ads that paint his legacy in a benign light.
Detractors and allies alike acknowledge Walker’s unrivaled fundraising prowess in the state, assisted by the Koch brothers’ network. They also note he won the contentious 2012 recall race.
But polling suggests that Walker has a legitimate threat in Evers, the mild-mannered head of Wisconsin schools who has thrice won statewide elections. Though Evers trailed some of his Democratic challengers in fundraising, with a meager $307,000 cash on hand as of mid-July, he has consistently led in the polls by double-digit margins and has far greater name recognition than the rest of the field.
As McCoshen, the GOP strategist noted, the NBC poll allows Evers “a much easier time convincing undecided Dems that he is the right guy to take on Walker.” A decisive win in the primary would give Evers “a huge bounce heading into the general,” McCoshen said.
Evers told TPM he is already gearing up for the next phase of the race.
“The most difficult piece will be transitioning from the primary race to a general, but that’ll be done in a short period of time and we’re clearly already thinking about that,” Evers told TPM in a recent phone interview.
Democrats see other warning signs for Walker lurking in the Marquette poll, where only 3 percent of respondents said they don’t already have an opinion about the governor.
Wisconsin Democrat Party spokesman T.J. Helmstetter said those numbers indicate that “he doesn’t really have any room to grow.” Helmstetter noted that Walker’s previous elections were held in 2010 and 2014—banner years for the GOP—and that he’s not used to campaigning in a less favorable environment.
“[Walker]’s been elected by relatively small margins when the wind was blowing at his back and now the wind appears to be blowing in his face,” the DGA’s Leopold told TPM.
Then there’s Walker’s links to the Trump administration. While neither side seems interested in making the race a referendum on the President, those ties may be some cause for concern. Trump is less popular in Wisconsin than in other states that swung his way in 2016. He had 42 percent approval in Marquette’s latest poll and only 36 percent in NBC’s, and is deeply underwater among independents in the state.
McCoshen acknowledged that Trump’s tariff war, which has caused Wisconsin-based Harley Davidson to outsource some production and taken a toll on the state’s manufacturing and agricultural industries, “might hurt Walker in the fall.”
Democrats say they’re happy to highlight those links to the President when they need to, like when Walker dispatched the National Guard to the border as the family separation crisis was unfolding. Trump is doing some of the work himself, referring to Walker as “a favorite of mine” at a joint appearance last week.
“He will be tied to Trump whether from his action or his inaction,” Evers told TPM.
By banking on the national tide of Democratic enthusiasm, Walker’s baggage, and a hyper-local campaign focused on education, jobs, and roads, Democrats hope they can squeeze out a narrow win in November.
Helmstetter, who did rapid response against Walker at the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign, said that Walker’s 71-day flameout on the national stage proved he isn’t the untouchable politician that his supporters like to imagine.
“I saw up close that the guy is not invincible,” Helmstetter said. “He’s more vulnerable than he’s ever been.”