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What Rush Limbaugh Got Wrong About My Scott Walker Cover Story

Addressing his and other criticisms of the controversial article

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The cover story of the current issue of the New Republic, on Scott Walker and the racial and political divisions of metropolitan Milwaukee, has touched quite a nerve. In the week since it appeared, the piece has been called a “smear” by conservative blogger Ann Althouse, a “commissioned hit job” by the neoconservative author Ron Radosh, and, combining the two labels, a “smear” and a “huge hit job” by Rush Limbaugh. Walker himself has commented on the piece in response to questions from Wisconsin reporters, saying, without going into specifics, that the piece is “filled with half-truths and misunderstanding,” containing “more untruths than I've seen in any publication in my life.” The piece has also been the subject of extended on-air criticism from the two conservative talk-show hosts in Milwaukee that it prominently features, one of whom, WTMJ's Charlie Sykes, was still railing against the piece today, nine days after its publication. Sykes has also written two posts about the piece on his Web site, where he called the piece a “heavy stew of urban legend, reheated unionista talking points, cherry-picked anecdotes and the usual journalistic hackery. …You can read the whole thing yourself, of course, but I can save you the trouble: Walker supporters are raaaaacists. Suburban raaaaacists. Talk radio-listening raaaaaacists. Sunday morning TV show watching raaaaacists.” (It’s worth noting that the piece also prompted mostly positive responses from others in Milwaukee, such as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane and former Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy.)

I usually allow long reported pieces to speak for themselves, but in this case it seemed worth engaging with some of the more substantive points raised by the piece’s critics. So here goes:

1. In his comments to Wisconsin reporters, Walker, whose office had declined repeated requests for interviews for the article, dismissed the piece’s linkage of his tenure as governor and the extreme political polarization of metro Milwaukee. He noted that the region’s divisions predated his being in office, and even predated his “being alive or being an adult.” It is true that, as the article describes, metro Milwaukee’s divisions have historical roots, tracing back, as I posit, to the delayed arrival of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South. But the political polarization of metro Milwaukee between the city and its suburbs—which ranks as the second worst of any city in the country except for New Orleans—has in fact gotten more extreme in recent years, as the stunning maps assembled in a recent Journal Sentinel series show. And no, this is not simply a reflection of the polarization that is happening elsewhere in the country. While many parts of the country are indeed becoming more uniformly blue or red, the suburbs of most northern cities (think Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit) have in recent years been in the process of becoming more purple as they shift from leaning Republican to leaning Democratic. By contrast, the WOW counties of Milwaukee, as Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties are known, have under Walker’s tenure been growing more monolithically red, to the point where he won some communities there with more than 80 percent of the vote in the 2012 recall. There is no way of quantifying just how large a role Walker has played in this process, but there is no question that polarization in metro Milwaukee is a contemporary and not just historical phenomenon and that his political rise is deeply enmeshed with it.

2. In his comments to Wisconsin reporters, Walker also disputed the piece’s argument that he would be ill-suited to broadening the Republican Party’s demographic and ideological appeal as a 2016 presidential candidate, given how much his success has depended on the homogenous Republican base in the WOW counties. Walker noted that he had three times won election as executive of Milwaukee County, which includes the 600,000-person city and about 355,000 additional people in its inner suburbs. He noted that he had won nearly 60 percent of the vote in the county in his second reelection in 2008, the same year that the county went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. “I think the record is pretty clear,” he said. But it’s actually not clear at all. Walker did win three times in Milwaukee County, but it’s worth bearing in mind the circumstances: he had replaced a Democratic administration tainted by a major pension scandal, and, more importantly, he was running for office in Milwaukee County’s springtime municipal elections, when turnout is much lower among the county’s younger and minority voters than it is in November elections. As successful as Walker was running for office as county executive, the fact remains that when it came time to run for governor against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in 2010, he did no better than previous Republican candidates in Milwaukee County. And in the recall election two years later, he fared worse in Milwaukee County than any Republican candidate for governor ever—even as he won quite easily statewide.

3. Rush Limbaugh made a related point in his riff about the piece last week, and one I’ve heard in various forms from other critics of the article: Walker has twice won elections in a purple state, so doesn’t that prove his appeal with swing voters? “He only got elected and survived two recalls in the blue state of Wisconsin,” Limbaugh said (he slightly misspoke: Walker got elected and survived one recall.) But this overlooks the piece’s central premise: that Walker has won election in a purple, or even blue-leaning, state not by winning over swing voters but by getting extraordinarily high turnout from his base in a midterm and special election when turnout from the other side’s base was far lower than it is in presidential year elections. Walker himself has admitted that when it comes to winning votes in Wisconsin, it’s not about persuading voters in the middle but about driving out his base: “It was always a divided state but it used to be (that) you’d explain it as ‘40/40/20,’ and 20 percent was the persuadable middle,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “That percent has shrunk now to 5, 6 percent maybe ... or five or six people.” Yes, there are corners of the state that are less starkly divided between two unpersuadable camps than is metro Milwaukee, and yes, there are some voters who cast ballots both for Walker and Obama in 2012. One can always find exceptions to the trend. But the trend in Wisconsin is clear—a state that is purple not because it has lots of swing voters but because it has two hyper-charged bases that win or lose depending on whether they turnout at higher rates than the other guys.

4. In his second piece for his Web site, Right Wisconsin, Charlie Sykes attacked what he claimed were two major factual flaws in the piece, which he and Mark Belling, the other local conservative radio talk-show host featured in the article, have also discussed on the air. One concerns this line in the piece: “Sykes is credited with, among other accomplishments, having blocked public funding for needle-exchange programs and having helped drive into bankruptcy an urban mall after harping on security issues there.” Sykes disputes the second part of this sentence, a reference to the closure of Northridge Mall in 2003. But he was credited for contributing to the mall’s woes, by a former Milwaukee County supervisor, Democrat Jim McGuigan, who wrote in a 2006 blog post that “for me and many of my neighbors the reason for Northridge malls demise has a great deal to do with talk radio show host Charlie Sykes personal harangues against security at the mall and implications that black kids at the mall were creating an unsafe environment.” In his rebuttal, Sykes notes that McGuigan was among those implicated in the 2002 Milwaukee County pension scandal. This is true. But the fact remains that McGuigan, as a longtime Milwaukee resident, saw Sykes’s on-air rhetoric about the mall over the years as playing a role in its failure. I reached McGuigan late last week and asked him whether he stood by that assessment and he said he did. “Charlie was one of the big people who were railing on Northridge Mall. I’m sorry if they don’t want to take credit for damage they did—too bad, too sad,” he said. “We don’t have a mall there because they were screaming about [security].” No, there is no way of confirming the extent of Sykes’ rhetoric about the mall without traveling back in time to listen to hundreds of hours’ worth of shows on WTMJ. But the piece’s reference to his being “credited” for the mall’s demise was by its very nature an assertion of a subjective judgment.

5. Sykes also points to Belling’s denial of a detail in my piece attributed to Christopher Terry, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who used to work under Belling at WISN. Terry told me that Walker had such regular and easy access to the studio at WISN that he would dial in to a special emergency-only phone line to get on the air or share his thoughts with Belling. Disputing this, Belling said on air last week that he had no recollection of Christopher Terry working for him, and that the phone line that Walker used to call in to the studio was not as exclusive as Terry made it sound. All that can be said on this point is that Christopher Terry did indeed work at WISN, and that I pressed him on the phone-line detail in two interviews, and that he was adamant about the line's exclusivity. I would have been glad to add Belling’s version had he been willing to speak with me, but he was not, even when I came to the WISN studio in person. More broadly, there is simply no question about Scott Walker’s ready access to Sykes and Belling: as Sykes himself told me, he is in such frequent e-mail and texting contact with Walker that he was surprised that more emails had not surfaced between the two of them as part of the investigation by state prosecutors into Walker’s Milwaukee County administration. “He keeps in very close touch with us,” Sykes said. “I don’t make any secret we’re close to Scott. ... People say, ‘Oh my God, he communicates with talk radio.’ Well, anyone who knows Scott Walker knows he does that all the time.”

The debate provoked by the article will not be fading anytime soon, nor should it, given the depth and import of the polarization and segregation it describes in the environment that produced one of the Republican Party’s top stars. But hopefully my response on these few points adds some clarity to the discussion.