President Barack Obama’s visit to a Milwaukee padlock manufacturer on Wednesday to showcase companies that are bringing jobs back to the United States carries political implications beyond the president’s plan to advance the argument that the economy is improving.
Master Lock, which Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address, is a unionized company that recently brought 100 jobs back from China.
Among the welcoming committee for the president at the airport will be Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whom Democrats and unions have targeted for recall — largely because of budget restrictions he imposed last year that effectively ended collective-bargaining rights for most public workers.
Walker also plans to accompany Obama to the Master Lock plant. Walker's official office and his campaign said only that it will be an honor to have the president visit the Badger State.
Obama's stop in Wisconsin will be his first in more than a year. It’s a recognition of sorts that he must win the state, which he carried by 14 points in 2008 but where Republicans captured nearly every statewide office two years later. Wednesday also marks the one-year anniversary of the first widespread protests against Walker's union proposal.
Walker has been making the case across the country that his recall election is a bellwether of how Obama will do in Wisconsin in the fall. In a fundraising letter his campaign sent to potential donors outside Wisconsin last month, Walker said a win would deliver a "devastating blow" to Obama's re-election efforts.
Although Walker’s office noted the honor of the president’s visit, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus denounced the trip to Milwaukee as "yet another taxpayer-funded campaign stop by the president, this time to our home in Wisconsin, to rehash really more of the same broken promises." Priebus chaired the Wisconsin Republican Party before taking over as RNC head last year.
Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks said that, in 2010, voters "resoundingly rejected the Democrats' ongoing effort to move our state backward and they have no interest in four more years of the same failed policies."
Two years after Obama's presidential win, Republicans won majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature, which Democrats had controlled, and knocked off Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. Republicans also picked up two of the state's congressional seats, giving them a 5-3 advantage.
Democrats have been trying to rebound since, and are using the citizen-driven recall petition drives to undo some of the Republican gains. Democrats picked up two seats in the state Senate through recall elections last year, and they are targeting four more Republicans this year.
A recent poll at the Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee showed both Obama and Walker leading their potential challengers in Wisconsin. Obama was ahead of Republican Mitt Romney 48 percent to 40 percent, and Walker was ahead of potential Democratic candidates by either 6 or 7 percentage points. The telephone poll of 701 registered voters was conducted Jan. 19-22.
"Based on that data, it's perfectly possible that the state renders a split decision," said Charles Franklin, director of the poll and visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette. "Both races are likely to tighten as we get closer."
Franklin said it makes sense for Walker to tie his fate to Obama's, because it probably would help mobilize conservatives and tea party activists.
Recall organizers submitted an estimated 1 million signatures to recall Walker, and the state is currently verifying the names. A recall election would likely be held this spring of summer.
Democrats are emphasizing the state's economy in their recall campaign against Walker, so Obama will have to walk a thin line during his visit to Master Lock.
"It is an interesting difficulty of Democrats wanting to talk about jobs being bad in the state and blame Walker, while Obama wants to talk about things turning around for his re-election," Franklin said.
Master Lock, founded in Milwaukee in 1921, employed more than 1,100 workers at its sprawling downtown Milwaukee complex when it announced in 1997 that it would begin importing locks from China. By 2003, the plant employed just 270 workers.
Early last year, the company's leaders said the business was operating at full capacity after bringing back jobs that had been outsourced. The plant now employs about 410 people, though it still operates factories in China and Mexico.
Master Lock became somewhat of a household name for its "Tough Under Fire" Super Bowl ads that ran for two decades starting in 1974. The ad shows the ubiquitous Master Lock padlock surviving a sharpshooter's bullet.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.