The polls are generally not trending well for Democrats in the final days before the 2014 midterms, but it’s increasingly looking not inconceivable that the party’s loss of the Senate could be accompanied by a loss for one of the party’s biggest bête noires: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. If polls showing him effectively tied with former Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke weren’t enough, Walker has been giving off the distinct vibe of a man in a bit of a panic. Here are four signs that the man many political prognosticators view as one of his party’s strongest 2016 presidential prospects may be in serious trouble:
1. Walker is having to bid for elusive swing voters.
There’s a widely-held misconception about Wisconsin politics: that the state is a classic swing state full of persuadable voters that flip back and forth from race to race. This could not be more mistaken. Yes, the state has seen big wins for both parties in the past few years (Barack Obama and Tammy Baldwin for the Democrats, Scott Walker and Ron Johnson for the Republicans) but those swings were not the result of a mass of independent voters switching from one party to the other. They were the result of one or the other party driving out more of its strikingly motivated and cohesive base of voters than the other party, which, since 2008, Democrats have done better in presidential years and Republicans have done better in midterm years. Far from being full of on-the-fence voters, Wisconsin (and particularly metro Milwaukee, where the bulk of the state’s voters live) is more starkly polarized than just about anywhere else in the country. Walker has won two elections (in 2010 and in the June 2012 recall) by getting truly astonishing turnout from his Republican base, particularly in the suburbs around Milwaukee (the “WOW counties”) that, as I described in a cover story earlier this year, make up a monolithic conservative landscape unlike anything found in any other large metro area outside the South.
Not long ago at all, it looked like Walker would, as usual, seek to win by rallying that staunch base, as he did when he declared last month that he declared his intent to start drug testing food stamp and welfare recipients and would be eager to fight the federal government in court for the right to do so. More recently, though, the Walker campaign seems to have veered from this tried-and-true formula, as if it was sensing that this time around it would not suffice. On Tuesday, the campaign went up with a new ad defending him against the Burke campaign’s charge that he has been an opponent of equal pay for women. In the ad, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican, says that “Under Scott Walker, workplace discrimination will always be illegal for any reason.” Not mentioned is that Walker two years ago repealed the state’s equal pay law for women. (As Huffington Post notes, “in the two years the law was in place, not one pay discrimination lawsuit was filed, and Wisconsin rose from 36th to 24th in the rankings of states with the best ratio of female to male pay. By contrast, after Walker repealed the legislation in 2012, Wisconsin dropped to 25th in wage gap rankings, according to 2013 data.”) Regardless of how misleading the ad is, though, what’s striking is that the Walker campaign felt the need to run it in the first place.
2. Walker is starting the blame game against fellow Republicans.
It’s not a good sign when, in the week prior to Election Day, a governor is openly criticizing his party’s governors association for being too lackluster in its support. Yet there was Walker—who is famously careful with his words, hard to ruffle, and good at hiding strain—complaining earlier this week about not having gotten enough backing from the Republican Governors Association, now led by Chris Christie. He said that the spending by the RGA “pales in comparison” to what national groups supporting Burke have spent on her behalf. “I’m hopeful that, just as they have in the past, at least some of the national governors associations have come in and helped,” Walker said. Even earlier, as Politico noted, “the governor grumbled to a Washington Post reporter that he could use more financial backing and named the RGA as the ‘main’ source he relies upon. Most provocatively, the conservative Weekly Standard magazine reported before the weekend that ‘top Wisconsin Republicans’ wonder if the Christie-led RGA is short-changing Walker in an effort to kneecap an opponent for the presidency.”
By late Monday, Walker was backing off his insinuations, but the whole episode did not give the impression of a candidate confident in his prospects. It was especially striking given that one of Walker’s main selling points as a 2016 candidate is that he is someone that the whole Republican Party could conceivably get behind, given that he is acceptable to most of the main branches of the party’s coalition (he’s an evangelical Christian, he’s staunchly anti-union and anti-tax, and he’s on good terms with foreign policy hawks). Yet here he was striking a lone-wolf pose against one of his party’s main organizational bodies.
3. The unpopularity of Barack Obama doesn’t help Walker as much as it might elsewhere.
In pretty much all of the close Senate races, and many of the close governors’ races, Republicans are closing their campaigns by railing against the president, over and over. But Walker can’t rely on that approach to the same degree. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert notes, Obama is less unpopular in Wisconsin than elsewhere. It is, after all, the state where he trounced Hillary Clinton in the primaries in 2008 and where he won relatively easily in both 2008 and 2012. Gilbert notes something else: in Wisconsin, “the decline in Obama’s ratings has coincided with a small decline— rather than an uptick—in Walker’s own job ratings.” There’s some irony here—back in 2012 and 2013, Walker liked to boast about the existence of “Obama-Walker” voters who had voted both for him in the recall and for Obama. There indisputably were some of these voters, though there were fewer of them than Walker, attempting to burnish his image as someone with broad appeal, wanted people to believe. Now, two years later, Walker finds that his political situation is linked to Obama’s more than he’d like. As Gilbert writes: “Walker was doing better when Obama was doing better, which could be coincidence or could indicate that 2014 is just a worse climate for incumbents in general.”
Regardless, Obama’s relative lack of toxicity in Wisconsin explains why he was in Milwaukee on Tuesday rallying the Democrats’ urban base. That’s something he’s not dared to do in New Orleans or Durham or Little Rock or other cities where Democratic candidates dearly need to turn out African-Americans and other base voters. But in Wisconsin, he could make the visit without fear of undue backlash elsewhere in the state.
4. The Voter ID law is on hold, yet is serving to rally black turnout anyway.
Given how pivotal base turnout is in Wisconsin elections, it is hardly surprising that Republicans have pushed especially hard in Wisconsin for voting restrictions whose inevitable result would be to lower black turnout. Earlier this year, Walker and the Republican legislature cut back sharply on early-voting days in Milwaukee and passed a law requiring photo identification at the polls. After the Voter ID law was struck down by one federal judge and then upheld by a federal appeals court, the Supreme Court intervened earlier this month to put the law on hold, noting that there was very little time left to promulgate the ID requirement and allow people without the requisite ID’s to obtain them. This has resulted in a best-of-both-worlds scenario for the Democrats: they don’t have to worry about the daunting task of helping thousands of citizens get ID’s, but all the talk of Republican efforts to restrict the franchise has helped motivate African-Americans. The AFL-CIO, for one, has run ads in Milwaukee reminding residents about the voting-restriction push. “It’s energizing people to go out,” says Michael Gillis, an AFL-CIO spokesman. The cutbacks in early-voting days have stood, which is a challenge, but, Gillis said, “there are still some early days to use and we’re making full use of them.”
Bottom line: I wouldn’t bet against Scott Walker—not with the WOW counties and talk-radio base-rallyers like Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling at his back. But if he wins reelection, it is highly unlikely to be the ringing affirmation he would have liked to launch him toward a 2016 run with a claim to having broad, purple-state appeal. That claim was going to have a hard time standing up to scrutiny, anyway, once people got a better handle on the singular political landscape of Wisconsin, but it will be even harder after this election.