Scott Walker's 2016 Ambitions May Hit 2014 Roadblock
Wisconsin governor testing national appeal with book tour centered around 2012 recall victoryNovember 25, 2013
The 46-year-old Republican governor of Wisconsin has barely hidden the fact he's testing the waters for a 2016 presidential bid, a prospect only enhanced by his success in beating back the historic attempt to remove him from office midway through his term following a knock-down, drag-out fight with the state's public employee unions.
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But standing between him and his unconcealed national ambition is yet another gubernatorial re-election campaign next year -- one that looks surprisingly more competitive than expected, especially given how demoralized Democrats were after Walker ran rings around them 17 months ago.
In the aftermath of that loss, Democrats whispered ruefully about how the recall process had botched their opportunity at upending arguably the most polarizing governor in the country.
That doom-and-gloom assumption has now evaporated in the wake of polling demonstrating Walker's consistent middling popularity and the emergence of a fresh-faced candidate who Democrats appear to be consolidating around.
Walker may already have one eye trained on a larger electoral prize, but operatives on both sides of the aisle are in agreement that his third gubernatorial race could shape up to be his toughest yet.
"This will be a close race for sure. No blowouts will occur here," said Democratic media strategist Jim Margolis, President Obama's adman who is now tasked with helping to defeat Walker.
"I believe he has a fight coming," said Brandon Scholz, a Madison-based consultant and former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
One woman who is certainly betting on Walker's vulnerability is his only announced Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, a 54-year-old former state Secretary of Commerce and school board member who is widely unknown in Democratic activist circles.
A former executive at her family-owned Trek Bicycle, Burke was recruited by Wisconsin Democratic Party officials to run after they conducted dozens of focus-groups designed to identify the traits best suited to contrast with Walker.
Burke checks virtually every box: a woman with a sterling business background and deep roots in the state who isn't a lifelong politician. It doesn't hurt that she's also a multimillionaire already plugging her own money into the endeavor.
"I spent time making sure if I got into it, I could win," Burke said.
But the same novelty that party leaders found attractive in the centrist Burke is raising red flags among some of the most ardent progressive activists in a state known for a historic streak of liberalism. Since her formal entrance into the race in October, assorted liberals have complained about her unwillingness to pledge to roll back Walker's collective bargaining reforms, her company's outsourcing of jobs overseas and her considerable personal wealth.
Grumbling aside, Burke's aides are cautiously optimistic she will avoid a divisive primary and slowly but surely win over skeptics who will swallow their ideological pride in the pursuit of defeating Walker and halting any presidential preparations squarely in their tracks.
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In fact, Burke's unwillingness to revisit the collective bargaining issue will presumably make her more marketable to the smidgen of remaining persuadable Badger State voters she'll need to pull off the upset.
"Many moderates have no special interest in that issue, at least any more," said Paul Fanlund, a left-leaning columnist for the Madison-based Capital Times who is urging liberals to back Burke. "Her estrangement from the far left might be helpful later."
A Marquette University poll -- which accurately tracked the outcome of the 2012 recall -- provided additional heartening news for Democrats. Burke trailed Walker by only two points in the late October survey, even though a staggering 70 percent of respondents said they didn't have enough information about Burke to form an opinion.
A $1 million pro-Walker television ad blitz in September funded by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce appeared to have little effect on boosting the governor's popularity.
"I think Scott Walker has a ceiling and I think he's in the neighborhood of that ceiling right now," said Margolis, pointing to the governor's 47 percent in the Marquette poll to Burke's 45 percent. "It's an immediate wake-up call that Wisconsin's in play."
Walker's team appears not to be rattled about the prospect of a close race.
"A generic Dem will get 45 percent in this race," said a Walker adviser not authorized to speak on the record. "It's going to be close regardless."
The governor's playbook against Burke will be to label her as a throwback to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's eight-year reign -- a period of economic stagnation, high taxes and deficits.
"We're confident that voters want to continue moving Wisconsin forward, and have no desire to return to the failed policies of the past," said Walker campaign manager Stephan Thompson in a statement.
But even on the economy -- Walker's supposed sweet spot -- there's a gaping opening for an attack.
It's unlikely his administration will hit its 2010 campaign pledge of creating 250,000 new jobs in the state by 2015 and Democrats are seizing upon a Moody's report that says Wisconsin remains one of the worst states for projected job growth.
"He can't blame anybody else. He's called every shot. He's gotten his way on everything. He has woefully performed on jobs compared to the other states around him," said Pete Giangreco, a Burke adviser who will handle the direct mail campaign.
Then there's the ongoing John Doe investigation, in which Milwaukee prosecutors continue to subpoena Walker allies in order to investigate the relationship between the governor's campaign and the independent groups that backed him.
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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett made no headway raising the issue in 2012, but even the slight whiff of scandal is a detriment in a margin of error race.
"He should sue for harassment," sniffed consultant Scholz, who views the entire ordeal as a partisan witch hunt.
If Burke can keep the race close heading into next fall, national interest in the race will explode given Walker's White House dreams. Outside groups like EMILY's List and Planned Parenthood are already expected to invest heavily to counter Walker's fundraising juggernaut, which collected more than $30 million for the 2012 contest.
The cash-flush Republican Governors Association and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity can be expected to come to Walker's aid once again.
"I think he will spend ungodly sums," acknowledged Margolis. "But the spotlight lights up everything for everybody."
Assuming the GOP fundraising advantage isn't gargantuan, Democrats say the race will come down to two overriding factors, which are neither wholly separate nor completely intertwined.
The one largely out of their control is the overall national environment and the strength of the headwind they will face during a midterm year. That assessment will shift another half dozen times before Election Day based on President Obama's standing and the issue matrix driving the conversation.
The other factor well within their influence is reaching the Walker-Obama voters -- those who supported the governor in a recall effort who then returned to cast a ballot for the president five months later. There are more than 200,000 of them and Burke's team believes they are ripe for the picking, assuming their vote against the recall was largely protesting what they saw as an illegitimate process, not a full-fledged embrace of Walker.
As a result of the Obama team's robust effort to secure the state's 10 electoral votes last fall, invaluable campaign infrastructure like the state's voter file have been vastly improved, a boon for Burke.
"We know more than ever about not just where, but who the drop-off voters are, based on the Obama campaign," said a Democratic operative who has worked several Wisconsin campaigns.
Whether they can successfully reach them will not only determine Burke's fate, but could very well reshape the presidential field before it has even fully formed.
David Catanese is managing editor of TheRun2016.com.