Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, wants you to know his Democratic opponent Mary Burke is a one-percenter and an outsourcer whose family company doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes. That’s the brave new world in the Badger State, where the GOP incumbent is taking a page out of the Obama campaign’s strategy against Mitt Romney to attack his 2014 gubernatorial rival.
The state Republican Party has invited voters to get to know “outsourcing millionaire Mary Burke” who is “a definitive ‘one-percenter'” on a new website purporting to introduce Wisconsinites to Walker’s relatively unknown challenger. Walker claims that the Burke family company, Trek Bicycles, makes 99 percent of its bikes overseas. The executive director of the state GOP said that Burke’s company “avoid(s) paying their fair share of corporate taxes.”
Such strong anti-corporate rhetoric from a staunch conservative like Scott Walker, the mastermind behind the 2011 anti-union bill that sparked national controversy, enthralling national Republicans while infuriating Democrats, has caught the attention of national writers like The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis. So what is going on in Wisconsin?
The most important factor is that the race is going to be close, even though Walker handily survived a recall election just two years ago that was catalyzed by his efforts to limit collective bargaining for public employees. TPM PollTracker gives Walker a negligible 0.4 percentage point lead at the moment. So Walker can’t expect to simply coast on his record after four years on the job.
But the other thing, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Tom Holbrook told TPM, is that Burke is still largely unknown. A Marquette University poll from July 23 found that 49 percent of Wisconsin voters didn’t have an opinion of her, even though she’s been in the race since October. And she is wealthy: The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel estimated, based on state income tax returns, that she made $6.8 million from 2008 to 2012. She’s also pumped about $400,000 of her own money into her campaign.
Meanwhile, 92 percent had an opinion of Walker, who has faced criminal investigations of his recall campaign’s finances and his time as county executive before he became governor: 45 percent favorable, 47 percent unfavorable.
Burke’s campaign has been touting her business experience from its first day. “Helping to turn my family’s business into a global company has been a big part of my life,” Burke said when she announced her candidacy. “Now I’d like to help make our great state of Wisconsin even better as your governor.”
So unable to focus exclusively on his own record, Walker is attacking Burke in order to undermine her campaign’s message and at the same time define her for those 49 percent who haven’t formed an opinion, Holbrook said.
“It’s going after one of her real strengths, which I think most people view as putting her more in the center of the ideological spectrum,” he said. “It’s not as much about trying to position Walker as a populist as it is trying to undercut this centerpiece of her campaign.”
“It is a little confusing,” he added.
Walker became a golden boy of the libertarian right early in his first term and has been tagged as presidential material, but his recent attacks on Burke sound uncannily like those used in 2012 against Romney by President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. “Mary Burke has personally benefitted from her company taking taxpayers’ money and then sending jobs overseas, particularly to China, where the average hourly wage is $2 an hour,” Walker told reporters in late July. “Voters deserve to know that.”
The strategy is not a guaranteed winner. Walker has already been criticized for the outsourcing attacks by one Wall Street Journal editorial writer, Allysia Finley, who wrote that Walker “is better than that.” PolitiFact more or less signed off on the veracity of the outsourcing claims, but the tax-payment charge was muddied somewhat after a report this weekend that Burke and her family paid $1.7 million in income taxes in 2012.
Holbrook also noted that, while the key to Burke’s campaign should be bringing out the elusive Democratic base in a midterm election, Walker could actually be unintentionally helping her by framing Burke as a “business Democrat” for more moderate voters.
But this might be the only card that Walker can play, Holbrook said. After a contentious term that has inflamed his opposition over the anti-union push and yielded tepid economic results for Wisconsin (37th in job creation in 2013), voters already know what they think of Walker. Diminishing opinions of Burke, particularly among working class white workers who might be more receptive to these populist attacks, might be his best shot at keeping the governor’s mansion, Holbrook said, and maintaining any 2016 ambitions.
“I think Walker’s people know that there’s not much that she or they can do to change how people feel about the governor,” he said, “so they’ve got to affect the way people feel about Burke.”
Even if that means sounding a little like a Democrat.