In Wisconsin, will Walker's reelection bid serve as conservatism's next test?

Wisconsin has undergone a wholesale reinvention during Scott Walker's two previous terms. This next election will determine if Democrats can mount a comeback in the Rust Belt.

Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette/AP
Gov. Scott Walker addresses supporters, Nov. 7, 2017, at Mid-State Equipment in Janesville, Wis.

Of all the states Hillary Clinton lost, perhaps none was as shocking as Wisconsin, with its long history of progressive politics.

But in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been.

While Democrats still outnumber Republicans here overall, that’s not the case among elected officials. From the legislature to the governorship, from the attorney general to the secretary of natural resources, the state is almost entirely controlled by Republicans – who, for the better part of a decade, have been steadily remaking it in their image.

Scott Walker won the governorship here as part of a nationwide Republican wave in 2010, and immediately set about turning the state’s finances around, eliminating a projected $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes, by cutting funding for everything from schools to environmental research.

In the process, Wisconsin, one of the first states to introduce income taxes and elect Socialist politicians, has undergone a wholesale reinvention – shifting from a model of government largesse to one of individual responsibility and accountability.

What’s been most striking about the Walker overhaul is not just its pace and breadth – after all, fully half of America’s states are run by Republican governors with majorities in both chambers of the legislature, enabling them to fast-track conservative policies – but the fact that he’s done it in such a closely divided, battleground state.

For conservatives around the country, “Wisconsin has been a petri dish for their right-wing experiment,” says Matthew Rothschild of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign contributions. “If they can take over Wisconsin and destroy the progressive tradition in Wisconsin and the laws that have been upholding this tradition, they can do this almost anywhere. Wisconsin proved that it was doable, and that it was doable astonishingly quickly.”

So far, Democrats have largely failed to thwart Mr. Walker, the son of a small-town preacher who opposes tax hikes as vehemently as he does abortion, who cut millions of dollars in funding from the state’s renowned university system, and dared to emasculate unions in the state that invented worker compensation.

Walker’s policies prompted the largest protests in Wisconsin since the Vietnam War, in the middle of winter, and a high-profile recall vote in 2012. Yet he not only won the recall election, but in doing so built a powerful state GOP machine that went on to play a key role in helping Donald Trump clinch the White House. 

Now, on the heels of his own failed presidential bid, Walker is seeking a third term, which would make his tenure the second-longest of any Wisconsin governor in history. As he launches his reelection campaign this week, many see it as a critical test of whether his brand of conservatism is truly here to stay, marking a lasting shift in Wisconsin’s values – or if Democrats can mount a comeback in the Rust Belt.

Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette/AP
A group of protesters chant outside a campaign event featuring Gov. Scott Walker at Mid-State Equipment in Janesville, Wis.

Both sides are already gearing up for a huge fight that some say could cost up to $100 million. To many, it’s a proxy war of sorts between those who hold up Walker as an icon of American conservatism and those determined to reassert liberal values in a key state in the Trump Era. Democrats will almost certainly need to win Wisconsin if they have any hope of defeating President Trump in 2020, and taking back the governorship would be a significant first step.

“We hope the whole nation will pay attention to Wisconsin because we are a test case of what happens under conservative policies,” says Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The ground war

At his campaign kick-off Sunday, Walker thanked the couple hundred supporters gathered at Weldall Manufacturing outside Milwaukee and asked for their prayers, saying he was the target of a national effort to unseat him.

“I’m going to need your help between now and next November,” he told the crowd, dotted with truck drivers and ladies with coiffed gray hair. “Because the best way to counter the tens of millions of dollars of the big-government special interests in Washington is through an army of grass-roots volunteers.”

Volunteers like Dick Fleissner, who became active in politics after he and his wife saved every single receipt for a year, back in 1997, and tallied how much they paid in taxes. A donut. Coffee. A refrigerator – everything went on the spreadsheet. The grand total: 48 percent of their household revenue.

“That was the catalyst,” says Mr. Fleissner, who has logged so many hours canvassing that he jokes residents now open the door and say, “Oh, it’s you again.”

Such volunteers have made Wisconsin’s GOP the “Seal Team Six of the Republican Party,” as conservative columnist David French put it. From 2010-16, party officials say they doubled their outreach to voters, and more than tripled the number of field offices to 40.  

The state’s Democratic Party, having paid dearly for not matching the GOP’s organizing, is now correcting course, and began putting its 2018 field staff in place more than a year and a half ahead of the election.

It’s a steep uphill climb for Democrats to win back the state legislature – a fact they blame on gerrymandering, which is under Supreme Court review. But they are intent on shoring up incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the nation.

As for the governorship, plenty of Democrats are already running against Walker, from state superintendent of schools Tony Evers to businessman Andy Gronik, but even Democratic observers say they’re not A-list candidates.

One perennial question has plagued Democrats here: Given the levels of disapproval roughly half of the state’s voters feel towards Walker – whose poll numbers have rarely risen above 50 percent – why haven’t they been able to mount a more impressive retaliation against him?

If the answer to that question was known, it would be known to the Democrats and they would fix it,” says Kenneth Mayer, political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Political beginnings

Walker came of age in Delavan, a small town in southern Wisconsin where a siren still sounds at noon to remind farmers it’s lunchtime. His father preached at the First Baptist Church; his mom baked cookies for teachers and ill neighbors; and a teenage Walker strode the halls of Delavan-Darien High School in a suit and tie.

Retired chemistry teacher and student council adviser Ann Serpe remembers him as self-motivated and focused. She seated him between two troublemakers to keep the peace, and when the school was preparing to host more than 3,000 kids for the state student council, he earned a reputation for getting things done. “He was a follow-through guy,” she says.

An Eagle Scout, Walker was chosen to represent Wisconsin at the Boys Nation forum in Washington, which whetted his political ambitions.

He went on to Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee where acquaintances recall him saying he felt a divine calling to go into politics. He ran for student government president, but after the school newspaper endorsed his opponent, Walker’s campaign was accused of confiscating stacks of that day’s edition. He lost the election and later left school before graduating to take a full-time job, leaving a mysterious hole on his resume – but one supporters are quick to dismiss.  

“If he’s that stupid, how did he become governor?” asks Delavan Mayor Mel Nieuwenhuis, who takes the local Boys and Girls Club to the governor’s mansion every year for a tour with Walker and his wife, Tonette.

A defining act

After winning the 2010 gubernatorial election, Walker’s opening salvo was a plan to put Wisconsin back in the black. He introduced the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which required most public employees to pay into their pensions and health-care plans, and effectively stripped away their collective bargaining power.

Known as Act 10, it famously prompted Democratic legislators to flee across the border to Illinois – depriving the legislature of the quorum needed for a vote. As many as 100,000 protesters flooded Madison’s snowy streets.

It was a defining moment for both sides, and Walker did not back down.

For the Republicans, whose ranks had swelled with an unusually large class of freshman legislators in the tea-party surge of 2010, the stand-off was a crucible that forged unity.

“I think [Walker] underestimated the resistance,” says state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R), a freshman at the time. But he adds, the resistance underestimated how much Walker’s party would be strengthened as a direct result of the protests.

Walker also cut $834 million to schools, and limited school districts’ ability to raise revenue through taxes, in what experts said was the largest cut to school funding in Wisconsin’s history. But it also brought Wisconsin’s education spending into line with the national average.

The move to require public employees to shoulder some of their pension and health-care payments was supported by more than two-thirds of voters, says Charles Franklin, head of the Marquette Law School Poll. The stripping away of collective bargaining rights was far more controversial.

Many educators are still bitter about Act 10, and say it has put a tremendous strain on the system. Communities have compensated by holding referenda to raise revenue through higher property taxes.

“The governor came into office saying, ‘We’re going to divide and conquer,’ and he’s done exactly what he said he would do,” says Superintendent Evers, one of Walker’s Democratic challengers for governor. “The people who were conquered were public servants.” 

Vaulting onto the national stage

After Act 10 passed, Democrats forced a recall election. Tactically, that was probably “the single biggest mistake” the Democrats and unions have made in the past generation, says Todd Berry, who has run the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance for the past 25 years.

The flare-up caught the attention of major national donors, and Walker was able to take advantage of a Wisconsin provision that allows unlimited fundraising for recall candidates. He raised more than $26 million in individual contributions during the 2012 recall year, about two-thirds of which came from out of state. He outspent his opponent by three to one, and won by a larger margin than in 2010, becoming the first US governor to survive a recall.

Still, the infusion of national money opened him up to criticism that he was becoming more beholden to outside interests than Wisconsinites. That deepened with his presidential run in 2015, which started with high expectations and flamed out in 70 days. Walker seemed oddly flat in debates and in over his head, especially on foreign policy, famously claiming that his experience taking on unions would position him well to defeat ISIS. The fact that he was away while the state legislature was negotiating over his deeply unpopular 2015 budget proposal was viewed negatively at home.

“People started to question, ‘Whose side is he on – is he really looking out for Wisconsin and my family, or is he looking out for his well-funded supporters, the Koch brothers and others?” says state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D), the Senate minority leader.

2018 and beyond

After that failed bid, Walker went on a listening tour around the state, holding nearly 75 sessions with voters. One of the top concerns raised was his cuts to school funding. So the governor proposed raising school spending in his next budget, which was passed by the legislature in September. Wisconsin is now spending more per pupil than it ever has in real dollars (though not when adjusted for inflation).

Walker’s supporters note that he has cut $8 billion in taxes over his tenure, and that average home owners are paying less in property taxes than when he took office. He also struck a highly publicized deal with Foxconn, a Taiwanese screen maker, paying them up to $3 billion over time to set up shop in Wisconsin and bring a promised 13,000 jobs to the state.

“At a time when people are seeing gridlock and dysfunction in DC, Wisconsin is an example of what real results look like,” says Brian Reisinger, senior adviser to Walker’s campaign, who calls the state a model of conservative reform.

But for some Wisconsin workers, life has gotten harder during the Walker years. More people are employed than ever before, Walker likes to say – but many question the value of that, if their jobs don’t provide enough to support a family and pay for health care. 

“I have to work a dead-end job and pay out the nose for everything,” says Nicole, a mom in Oshkosh, standing hoodless in the cold after getting off her shift at a car-rental agency. She hasn’t had medical insurance in months, and says she would need a second and third job to pay for ObamaCare – but doesn’t have time as a single parent. Her boss offered her a car for $500 – after it had been in a deer accident (she opted for car payments instead). Recently, her landlord raised the rent by almost 15 percent.

Meanwhile, she says, her dad – a public employee who was once able to afford dinners out and vacations with four kids – is struggling more now with just one child left at home.

Opponents paint Walker as cold-hearted and opportunistic, caring more about business interests than Wisconsinites. Those close to him say that’s a misstatement of his character, and of his governing principle of removing barriers to prosperity – teaching a man to fish, rather than giving him one, as the Chinese proverb goes.

“If you despise Scott Walker, you do not understand him,” says state Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R), responding to texts from the governor during an interview. “I believe the governor’s vision and what the legislature has been able to accomplish is truly to give every man, woman, and child of this state the best opportunity to succeed.”

Senator Shilling, the minority leader, says the Republican legislature has too often ceded its power to the executive. That’s fine for Republicans, so long they hold the governor’s seat, too, but it undermines the institution.

“We always remind them – the pendulum will swing back,” she says. “Someday, you may regret that, giving away your authority.”

So long as Walker is in power, though, he is likely to stick to his conservative guns. Speaker of the Assembly Robin J. Vos, one of the first to endorse Walker’s gubernatorial ambitions, knows that as well as anyone. In the latest budget negotiations, he and other Assembly Republicans were at odds with the governor over how to address the $1 billion deficit in the state’s Transportation Fund, with the governor adamantly refusing to raise taxes even slightly, despite Wisconsin’s roads being ranked 49th out of 50.  

“He is like the Rock of Gibraltar in a typhoon,” says Speaker Vos.

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