MENOMONEE FALLS, Wis. — Republican Gov. Scott Walker arrived at the Milwaukee Bearing and Machining plant one afternoon earlier this week to a hail of applause from the assembled workers and supporters holding campaign placards and straining for cellphone photos.
The company he was visiting, which supplies oil and gas producers and others, had seen a significant decline in its business going into 2016. Since then it has rebounded, thanks in part to changes in federal regulations. “This year has been great,” said Shelly Judkins, the company’s sales manager. “The biggest problem we have is finding skilled labor to fill the positions we need.”
That’s the kind of economic change about which Walker has been preaching as he campaigns for reelection, that of a state on the move upward. When he came into office eight years ago, he told the audience, the state economy was “a mess.” Today, he said, “Things are completely different,” with low unemployment and more people at work than ever. “We turned this state around,” he said.
If that were all the Wisconsin gubernatorial election were about, Walker might expect to be cruising toward another four years in office. But this is the same governor whose initial moves — taking aim at bargaining rights of public employee unions — brought angry demonstrators to the state capitol in Madison, set off bitter arguments that separated friend from friend and made an already divided state deeply polarized around his leadership.
Outwardly things appear calmer in Wisconsin these days, but beneath the surface divisions remain around Walker and around President Trump, whose 22,700-vote victory in the state helped secure his electoral college majority. Few people are neutral about Walker, which is why, a few days from Tuesday’s balloting, he is in a struggle against Democrat Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction. A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed a dead-even race, with both candidates at 47 percent.
Walker is trying to hold back forces that could dramatically change the political complexion of the entire Midwest. For the past eight years, Republicans have controlled governorships across the region. With GOP-controlled legislatures, they enacted conservative policy agendas and in some cases drew legislative and congressional district lines that greatly benefited their party.
Today the GOP’s hold on power is at risk. By the end of Tuesday, it’s possible, though not necessarily probable, that Democrats could hold every governorship from Iowa through Pennsylvania, with the exception of Indiana. Democrats are favored to hold governorships in Minnesota and Pennsylvania and to pick up the governorship in Illinois. Gubernatorial seats in Iowa and Ohio, both of which are in GOP hands, are in the toss-up category.
But there’s no contest quite like Wisconsin’s, given Walker’s history and that he is seeking a third term, something only one other Wisconsinite — Republican Tommy Thompson — achieved. And this marks the fourth time Walker has asked voters to make or keep him as governor: After winning the election in 2010, he weathered a contentious recall election in 2012. Targeted by organized labor, he was dubbed “Dead Man Walker” by Time magazine ahead of the recall but managed to win by seven percentage points. Two years later, he won reelection by six points.
“In ’10 and ’14, we had momentum on our side,” Walker said in a phone interview the morning after his appearance in Menomonee Falls. “The wind was at our back.” That’s no longer the case. “I’ve been warning since last year, even before last year, that this is a tough state and the left is angry,” Walker said.
Presidentially, Wisconsin has featured some of the closest races in the country over the past 18 years. Trump won the state by less than a percentage point two years ago, and Democrats in 2000 and 2004 won it be less than half a point. Only Barack Obama had easy victories.
Since Trump’s election, Democrats have scored special election victories in the state that Walker said should provide a wake-up call for complacent supporters. “Those things were all tangible reminders of what we were saying,” Walker said.
Walker has held one public office or another for the past quarter century. Asked why he needs a third term as governor, he said, “I want to finish the job.” By that, he said he meant focusing on developing and building a skilled workforce for the state’s growing economy. To do that, he said he is prepared to invest in worker training and education. “My goal is not to just train and educate the workforce but to grow it,” he said.
Walker’s critics say that pledge to be an education governor rings hollow, given his record. Campaigning in Milwaukee earlier in the week, Evers blasted that record. “For eight years, we’ve had a governor who hasn’t dealt with the issue of student loan debt,” he said. “He’s demonized our teachers and he’s cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of our public education budget.” Someone in the crowd yelled, “Vote him out!”
Evers said he would give $1.5 billion in state aid to school districts if he is elected. Walker says Evers would raise taxes to do all he is pledging to do. Evers, in a telephone interview, responded by saying: “He is a liar. . . . I’m planning to raise no taxes.”
On the economy, Evers argues that despite low unemployment, many Wisconsin families are still struggling. “His economic record is basically skin deep,” Evers said. “If you look below the surface, there are lots of problems.”
Walker, like Republicans across the country, has been put on the defensive over health care, specifically the issue of protections for people with preexisting conditions. He pushed his state to join a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which contains those protections, but he has pledged to provide those protections through state law, regardless of what happens in that case.
Evers said such legislation would not provide the same protections as in the federal law and also questioned whether the legislature would approve it. So far the state Senate has resisted. Walker said he could get the measure through the legislature but doubts that Evers could if elected. “On this issue, he said, “I’m really the only choice in this election.”
Both candidates have turned to high-profile surrogates for help in turning out voters. Obama and former vice president Joe Biden have campaigned in behalf of Evers. Trump held a rally recently in north central Wisconsin, aimed clearly at energizing voters in rural areas of the state where he did well in 2016 and where Walker must turn out a sizable vote to win Tuesday. The Marquette poll suggests that Walker is struggling in some of those areas, compared to previous campaigns, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Walker and Trump have had an up-and-down relationship, dating back to the 2016 campaign. Walker was seen as an early front-runner for the GOP nomination but faded quickly once Trump became a candidate. He quit the race long before the primaries began and later endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) ahead of the Wisconsin primary.
Now, Walker says he and the president have formed a working relationship, even if they don’t share the same style politically. Walker pointed to the recent trade agreement with Canada that he said would be good for Wisconsin dairy farmers. He says he pushed the president to take on the issue.
“I don’t have to agree with everything he says or does or how he does it,” Walker said. “But there’s no way Tony Evers gets that dairy deal done, because no way he can connect with the president.”
Asked what kind of factor Trump plays in the gubernatorial race, Evers said: “We’re not running against the president. Our opponent is Scott Walker.”
Walker has frustrated his opponents repeatedly during his time in office. The question in these last days is whether he has the wherewithal to do it one more time.