Scott Walker 2016? Why his 2014 race is getting tighter

In reverse of the national trend, Gov. Scott Walker's camp sees more enthusiasm among Democrats than Republicans for the November vote. If he fails to win reelection in Wisconsin, that's the end of his Oval Office dreams.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP/File
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks in Milwaukee in May. Polls show him in a close reelection race with Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

No governor has more on the line this November than Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Not only is Governor Walker (R) looking to win his state's top job for the third time in four years – remember the recall vote in 2012? – he’s also gearing up to run for president in 2016. But he can’t get to the Big Show without winning another term in Madison first. And polls show his race against Democrat Mary Burke, wealthy former executive of the Trek bicycle company, has tightened into a dead heat. 

Ms. Burke won her primary Tuesday against token opposition, and now the sprint to the finish is on.

The latest poll, released Aug. 3 by Gravis Marketing for the conservative website Human Events, shows Walker and Burke tied at 47 percent each among likely Wisconsin voters. In March, Gravis had Walker up by 5 percentage points. A poll released July 23 by Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee shows Walker at 46 percent and Burke at 45 percent among registered voters.

A source in the Walker camp speaking privately says Wisconsin Democrats are more engaged and energized by the race than Republicans – a reverse from the national trend, and a worrisome sign for the GOP in a blue-leaning state.

Charles Franklin, polling director at Marquette Law School, does not completely agree with the Walker campaign’s assessment. His July poll showed slightly more Wisconsin Democrats than Republicans as “absolutely certain” to vote in November, but slightly more Republicans than Democrats said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting.

“My interpretation at this point is that there is not a strong asymmetry between the two parties,” says Mr. Franklin.

But, he adds, Wisconsin midterm electorates historically tilt somewhat Republican, so the fact that the likely electorate is “not tilting much one way or another, or maybe just a hair pro-Democratic” gives Walker cause for concern.

“It’s probably reasonable for him as an incumbent coming up on what amounts to a third election to be beating the bushes pretty hard,” Franklin says.

Walker was first elected governor in 2010, the first tea party wave election, and aggressively pushed through limits on collective bargaining rights for most public employees. That earned him the ire of pro-labor forces, massive protests in and around the state capitol, and a recall election in June 2012. Walker survived, making him the only US governor in history to win a recall vote.

Democrats are still bitter, and would love nothing more than to crush Walker’s political career. They think they’ve got a winner in Burke. She has served in government: She was the appointed state commerce secretary from 2005 to 2007 and currently serves on the Madison school board. But she has spent the bulk of her career as executive of Trek bicycles, a company co-founded by her father. That gives her a pro-business profile that can attract moderates, and a big bank account that means her campaign won’t run out of money.

In an ad released last week, Walker tied Burke to unpopular former Gov. Jim Doyle (D), who appointed her secretary of commerce.

But Burke has fought back, pointing to Walker’s job creation numbers. At the start of his term, Walker promised 250,000 private-sector jobs in four years, but so far has seen only 100,000 created during his tenure.

Walker’s job approval has drifted below 50 percent, but President Obama’s is worse – 43 percent in Wisconsin, according to Gravis. And as with so many Democrats in competitive races around the country, don’t expect the president to appear at Burke’s side anytime soon.

Walker has also taken no chances on fundraising. In the first half of 2014, he raked in twice as much cash as Burke.

But the Walker camp is still sounding the alarm about Big Labor’s reported plan to spend at least $300 million in the 2014 midterms, focused on five states, including Wisconsin.

“It’s going to be very competitive,” says Doug Kaplan, managing partner at Gravis Marketing. “Walker is loved on the right, but disdained on the left. He’s probably the No. 1 target on the left.”

Jennifer Duffy, analyst of governor’s races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, calls Wisconsin "pretty evenly divided."

“It’s earned its purple,” says Ms. Duffy, who ranks Wisconsin a tossup, along with five other Republican-held governor’s seats and two Democratic seats. “In the recall, Walker did a good job getting out the vote. He just has to make sure the organization is ready again. These candidates are fighting over a very narrow sliver of the vote."

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