Scott Walker Tries to Snatch Football From Democrats One More Time

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Wisconsin Democrats are like the comic strip character Charlie Brown when he tries to kick that football: every time they think they're about to defeat Governor Scott Walker, victory is snatched away.

Walker, running for his third term in November, has been skillfully performing the Lucy trick since he was first elected in 2010, then in an ill-advised recall vote in 2012, and again when he was re-elected in 2014. There is no nimbler politician in America, or one always as ready to be flexible.

Third terms rarely are easy for governors to win, though another Wisconsin Republican, Tommy Thompson, won four times in the 1980s and 1990s. This year's challenge is Walker's toughest, facing an electorate where few voters are neutral.

The Walker forces acknowledge that in previous elections the wind was at their back; 2010 and 2014 were banner Republican years. The governor has warned Republicans all year that the 2018 political environment favors the other side.

Democrats flipped two heavily Republican state legislative seats in 2018 special elections, and a liberal overwhelmingly won a state Supreme Court contest. Democrats say that this signals that they finally can beat their statehouse nemesis.

The political enthusiasm among the party's rank and file, as elsewhere, is off the charts," said Martha Laning, the state party chair. "We have a lot more energy than I've ever seen. Much of it is driven by education, which has taken a big hit under Scott Walker."

Yet it's always a mistake, as Badger State Democrats have painfully learned, to underestimate Walker's shrewd relentlessness. By one account, he has made twice as many public appearances as his charismatically challenged opponent, Tony Evers, the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction.

He is strikingly adaptable. In his one embarrassing defeat, for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he went from being a supporter alongside former President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, to railing against immigration "amnesty," to doing a full 180 and calling for cuts to legal immigration. It was to no avail; he couldn't out-bash Donald Trump when it came to immigrants. Walker, one of the early favorites, dropped out of the contest in September 2015, four months before a vote was cast.

As governor, he undid much of Wisconsin's progressive tradition, curbing the clout of labor unions, cutting back on education budgets even for the prestigious University of Wisconsin, embracing a conservative social agenda, slicing taxes, reducing regulations and engineering a partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.

There's not much of that Walker visible in this Democrat-friendly year. He's now calling for "historic" investments in education, though to levels still below those that prevailed when he took office. He's talking about improving bridges, roads and other infrastructure, where Wisconsin has lagged, and the benefits of affordable health care, although he only partially agreed to the federal Medicaid expansion enabled by the Affordable Care Act, denying coverage to more than 80,000 low-income residents. He got the Republican legislature to approve an unusual $100 check per child for every Wisconsin family in the months leading up to the election.

Walker hails a booming economy with an unemployment rate of 3 percent, the tenth-lowest of any state. He takes credit for persuading Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant, to locate a North American operation near Milwaukee, promising 13,000 jobs. But those jobs aren't certain to materialize, and Walker gave the company more than $4 billion in tax breaks and other incentives.

Unlike most states, Wisconsin doesn't have much action on the congressional level. Senator Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic incumbent, is a strong favorite for re-election and, with the gerrymandered districts, Democrats appear unlikely to pick up any of the state's five Republican seats in the House of Representatives. (Democrats already hold the other three.)

There's an intense battle for the state Senate, where Democrats need to pick up two seats for a majority. This is critical both for legislation and to undo some of the gerrymandering after the 2020 census.

An article of faith among many Wisconsin Republicans is that with Walker and his turnout machine at the top of the ticket, they can hold the state Senate. This confidence is reinforced when they compare him to the phlegmatic Evers.

One of the wisest of the state's Democratic analysts, Bill Dixon, thinks they're miscalculating, that Evers is the perfect antidote to the turbulent Walker years.

"Scott Walker, for all his success, has brought a disruption that voters are tired of," said Dixon, who ran Gary Hart's presidential campaign in 1987. "Tony is the smooth, calming presence, talking about education, that gives us a much better chance than previous elections against Walker."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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