Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Mary Burke, left, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. (AP; Mory Gash/AP)
With the latest polls in Wisconsin showing Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a dead heat with Democratic opponent Mary Burke, there is only one major issue: Walker himself, a national figure (and a highly controversial one) and his reforms of healthcare and pensions for many public employees.
If Walker, 46, wins in November, it is taken for granted he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. But that's a big "if."
A just-completed Marquette University poll among likely voters statewide showed Burke, a former state commerce secretary and bicycle company executive, edging Walker by a margin of 47 percent to 46 percent. Among voters in general, Walker holds a slight edge, 46 percent to 45 percent.
Democrats in the Badger State and in Washington appear more committed about finishing Walker's career than electing the little-known Burke, whose highest elective office has been to the Madison School Board.
"The AFL-CIO has announced plans to spend $300 million to defeat [Republican] governors in five states," Walker told Newsmax during the Republican National Committee meeting in Chicago last week, "Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
"So that means that you could easily have more money spent against me independently than the combined total spent by both major party candidates for governor [roughly $43 million] in 2010."
The "Get Walker" sentiment among organized labor nationwide goes back to the same reason the governor is a hero to conservatives nationwide: his proposal, approved in 2012 by the Republican-controlled Legislature and upheld recently by the state Supreme Court, requiring many state employees to pay a portion of their pension and healthcare plans.
The fury from public sector unions over these reforms resulted in a recall election directed against the governor and one which attracted worldwide attention. Correspondents from the BBC and the venerable French publication LeFigaro descended on Wisconsin.
When it was over in June 2012, Walker not only became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall but did so with a larger-than-expected margin of 54 percent to 46 percent over Democrat Tom Barrett.
Like the late New York Rep. and 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, Walker also appears eternally upbeat and never has a harsh word about anyone. Days after surviving the recall, he cheerfully invited all the Democratic legislators who sought to destroy him to the Governor’s Mansion for "beer and brats" and discussion of things they could work on together.
"People in Wisconsin generally like political leaders who are men and women of consequence and who have big ideas and put them in action," said veteran Madison, Wis., GOP political consultant Scott Becher. "Even people who don’t agree with Gov. Walker agree he is cut from that cloth."
Becher said that the same Marquette poll showing Walker in a virtual dead heat for re-election also showed that 66 percent of voters statewide believe the governor knows how "to get things done."
With Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch also surviving the recall and again at his side, Walker is emphasizing how the duo came into office facing a $362 million deficit and today preside over a surplus of nearly $1 billion. Having avoided any tax increases, the GOP chief executive oversaw $406 million in property tax relief and, thanks to a change in withholding policies, taxpayers now take home $57 a month more than they previously did.
Although unemployment in the state has dropped from 9.1 percent when Walker took office to 5.7 percent today, Democrat Burke hammered the governor for falling far short of a 2010 vow to create 250,000 more jobs. More than 27,000 new companies have relocated to the state since he took office, but they have so far yet to create the number of new jobs Walker promised.
Walker is also sure to be hit in the unions’ independent salvo over his alleged connection to a "criminal scheme" to coordinate the activities of conservative groups who were fighting the recall (although a prosecutor made clear that Walker himself was not a target of his probe).
Neither side talks much about the reforms that made Walker such a lightning rod, but the strong sentiments still percolate beneath the surface.
"Wisconsin is truly a two-party state and the outcome of this race will depend on voter turnout," Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus told Newsmax, "But I think Gov. Walker will win because we're a little better at turnout."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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