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Small Ball in Wisconsin

After the high drama of a recall, Scott Walker runs a low-key reelection campaign.

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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So far, Burke hasn’t detailed how Wisconsin would create more jobs under her leadership. Her “Invest for Success” jobs plan includes such deep insights as the following: “As a businessperson, I know that businesses create jobs.” The 38-page plan is full of vague corporate-speak about how Mary Burke will “strengthen partnerships among companies and local industry associations to drive a cluster-wide strategy,” “leverage our existing international relationships,” “help industry grow and innovate by adopting new technologies,” and “institute continuous improvement initiatives.” Burke never really gets around to saying what legislation will help her accomplish all of this leveraging and innovating. The only new measure she called for during her speech to the Manitowoc Chamber of Commerce was raising the minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25.

There have also been plenty of character attacks. Walker’s TV ads hit Burke, a wealthy former executive of her father’s bicycle company, Trek Bicycle Corporation, for hypocritically shipping jobs to China, where employees work for $2 an hour. Meanwhile, Burke and the media have used details of a campaign finance investigation to raise a cloud of suspicion around Walker.

Following the 2012 recall election, a Democratic prosecutor launched a secret investigation into whether groups that supported Walker had illegally coordinated in violation of state campaign finance law. The investigation, which included predawn raids and the collections of thousands of emails, had so little merit that a federal judge shut it down in May before the prosecutor had decided whether to file any charges. “The theory of ‘coordination’ forming the basis of the investigation, including the basis of probable cause for home raids, is not supported under Wisconsin law and, if it were, would violate the United States Constitution,” wrote Judge Rudolph Randa.

The prosecutor spearheading the investigation even issued a statement saying, “At the time the investigation was halted, Governor Walker was not a target of the investigation.” Nevertheless, the local and national media continue to report breathlessly and ominously on each new batch of documents released as the decision to halt the investigation is appealed before a panel of judges on the Seventh Circuit.

Before the documents started to emerge in May, Walker led Burke by 3 points among likely voters in the Marquette University Law School poll. By August, Burke led Walker by 2 points among likely voters in the Marquette poll but trailed Walker by 3 points among registered voters—a somewhat headscratching result.

“Conventional wisdom and the evidence is that midterm electorates, and in Wisconsin particularly, are less favorable to Democrats,” Marquette professor and pollster Charles Franklin told me. “So anything that shows registered voters more Republican and likely voters more Democratic is an interesting surprise.”

Maybe Walker will regain his edge as voters become more engaged after Labor Day. But it’s also possible that some of his supporters are actually discouraged—by the campaign finance investigation, the defensive aspects of Walker’s campaign, or both.

Walker and his campaign have been pretty much silent on Obamacare, which Wisconsin voters oppose by a 17-point margin. To the extent that the topic is broached, it’s Burke who has taken the offensive, criticizing Walker for rejecting federal funding to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, an issue on which the Democrat enjoys a 29-point advantage.

“I don’t think it becomes a primary issue, but we’re looking at ways to address it, tying it in,” Walker told me during an August 22 interview in Madison. “I think it’s tough for anyone, not just me, in a gubernatorial race” to tie a candidate to Obamacare who neither voted for the law nor can vote to repeal it, he added.

Walker said he hasn’t run ads on the Medicaid issue because it’s an argument Burke has mostly prosecuted in the media, not in her own ads. “If they put points behind it, we’d probably counter back,” Walker said. “We’d point out two-fold: one, that Mary Burke wants to dramatically expand Obamacare, which I think would fly in the face of most voters here. Secondly, that if anybody actually thinks the federal government’s going to fulfill a commitment on Medicaid when they have $17 trillion debt, they already have a track record with seniors of reneging on commitments, they’re living in an alternative universe.”

It’s a tough fight to win, given the Democratic tilt of the state, which Obama won by 14 points in 2008 and 7 points in 2012. Almost every other Republican governor of blue or swing states—including Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—supported Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

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