MADISON, WI — Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his Democratic detractors have been in a no-holds-barred brawl for eight years now. But there’s one thing the two sides can agree on: This election is Democrats’ best chance to beat him.
Walker’s popularity isn’t what it once was — public polls show he’s never fully recovered from his aborted presidential run, and the polarizing figure’s numbers are underwater for the first time heading into an election. President Trump, who barely carried the state in 2016 and has started trade wars that are hurting some major local industries, isn’t helping him any.
Unlike his last elections, Walker is hoping to survive a political wave rather than surfing one.
Democrats, scarred from three failed efforts to defeat Walker in the state, are feeling an unusual feeling of optimism as they look ahead to the fall with newly minted nominee Tony Evers (D), the head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction and a former teacher.
The battle-tested Walker is the first to admit he’s facing the most challenging in-state campaign of his career.
“This is the toughest election I’ve ever faced as governor,” he told TPM after a campaign stop Monday in Platteville, a small town in the state’s far southwest corner across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa.
Later in the day in Monroe, after being treated to a 10-second yodel and some tasty cheddar cubes from cheese shop owner Tony Zgraggen, Walker expanded on those thoughts.
“In 2010, in 2014, nationally the wind was kind of at our back,” he said, before arguing that he successfully framed his 2012 recall election as an issue of fairness and won over moderates. “In this election the national wave is coming at us.”
There are signs that may be true — and that Democrats may finally have a shot at toppling their longtime nemesis.
Early this year, Wisconsin Republicans lost a shocker of a state Senate special election in exurban and rural northwestern Wisconsin that they’d held for nearly two decades. They went on to get blown out in a statewide Supreme Court race, losing by a double-digit margin. They’ve subsequently lost another state senate seat, one in similarly conservative northeastern Wisconsin.
One more major warning sign for Walker came Tuesday night, when roughly 100,000 more Democrats turned to vote in the state’s crowded gubernatorial primary than Republicans turned out for their own hard-fought Senate primary — even though the Senate race saw significantly more ad spending.
Walker has rung the alarm bells, including after the state Supreme Court loss:
Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.
— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) April 4, 2018
Walker has also made some moves since his failed presidential run to signal to voters he’s more interested in results and less in his ideological firebrand image, one forged by his highly controversial dismantling of the state’s public teachers’ unions, passage of right-to-work legislation, a voter identification law, and deep cuts to state education. He recently got a waiver from the Trump administration to help stabilize the state individual health care exchange, essentially shoring up a key piece of Obamacare, and has looked to rehabilitate his image on education. He’s also hopeful that his bringing a large Foxconn plant to southeastern Wisconsin with $4 billion in tax incentives will help, not hurt, him in the fall.
Evers went quickly on the attack, blasting Walker for making deep cuts to the state’s education system, refusing to expand Medicaid, and declining to stand up to Trump on the President’s trade wars — including calls to boycott local company Harley-Davidson.
“If you come after Wisconsin’s businesses you’re going to have to answer to me. Donald Trump will no longer have a doormat here in Wisconsin,” Evers said in his Tuesday night primary victory speech in Madison.
And while he never mentioned Walker’s infamous war to tear down Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, Evers alluded to that divisive push.
“He started his reign of terror with divide and conquer, you’ll remember that,” he said. “I believe that what unites us is stronger than what divides us.”
On Monday, Walker pointed out to TPM that Evers once praised his education budget as “pro-kid.”
“The best testament to our commitment to education comes from Tony Evers,” he said. “If that’s his argument, his own words will be used against him repeatedly.”
The Wisconsin GOP was quick out the gate with a TV ad attacking Evers for failing to strip a disgraced local teacher of his license:
Evers isn’t the most charismatic or polished speaker, though Democrats aren’t sure that’s a negative for him in a year where voters are turned off by Trump’s bombast.
“He doesn’t have that scream into the microphone style. Thank god,” former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton (D) told TPM. “I want somebody that doesn’t depend on rhetoric.”
But the soft-spoken Walker isn’t the most charismatic politician either, as he proved during his flame-out of a presidential campaign.
The race will undoubtedly be a harsh and expensive one — Walker’s campaigns always are. But after a decade of heartbreak, Democrats are feeling like they might take down their public enemy.
When asked what the odds are that Evers will beat Walker, the soft-spoken Lawton laughed.
“Damn close to 100 percent,” she said.