Why No One Can Stop Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 11 2012 5:05 PM

Welcome to Walkerland

Gov. Scott Walker’s dominant position in Wisconsin is a thing of wonder.

Volunteer at a Scott Walker Victory Center.
Lillian Nolan, a volunteer at a Scott Walker Victory Center in Fond Du Lac, Wis.

David Weigel for Slate.

OSHKOSH, Wis.—If you get bored in Wisconsin, play a game. Drive a few miles through any neighborhood. Count the signs that read “We Stand With Scott Walker,” or “I Stand With Scott Walker,” or “Scott Walker: Believe in Wisconsin.” Try and figure out what the houses have in common.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

You won’t. There are pieces of Walkerian flair outside of barns on Highway 41, near working-class ranch homes in Appleton, and in the tony part of Oshkosh that Sen. Ron Johnson calls home. On one stretch of Highway 26, somebody’s propped up an unused toilet with a sign reading, “Deposit recall petitions here.” Next to that, a Walker sign that crosses out half of the phrase “for governor” and adds “president.”

The public displays of affection for Walker can put you in mind of October 2008, when placing a HOPE poster or Shepard Fairey print in your window told neighbors about your politics and taste. The Walker gear is easily attained at one of the 20 “victory centers” promoted by the campaign. I stopped by half a dozen of them—local Republican offices temporarily converted to the cause. In the front of the Winnebago County office, a digital sign counted down the days to the June 5 recall. A cardboard Walker stand-up faced visitors from behind a podium. A handmade sign portrayed two cartoon burglars looking around as they hauled bags of pilfered goods.

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Inside, a 61-year-old grandmother named Diane Malecki was putting pro-Walker buttons in a tackle box. She would sell the gear at this weekend’s Republican conference in Green Bay. While we talked, a supporter bought one of the buttons Malecki had designed: A sheriff’s star with the legend, Walker, Taxes Ranger.

“The table and chair in this office—this came from my mom’s house,” said Malecki. “We had to rehab it. She wore down the wood, writing and reading and writing to Congress. She was like a one-person Tea Party! She’d even write on the backs of the envelopes. I’d ask her: ‘Why are you writing on there?’ And she’d say, ‘It doesn’t hurt the postman to learn something.’”

The Walker campaign—the one currently leading in polls—is what every Republican presidential candidate tried and failed to build. There’s a perfect link-up here between Tea Party, Republican Party, and megadonor. Walker’s TV ads run constantly; the Democratic ads don’t. Walker’s swag is everywhere, paid for by $25 million in donations, two-thirds of which dropped in from outside Wisconsin. Tom Barrett, Walker’s Democratic competition, has raised less than $1 million.

The yawning money gap grew out of a loophole in campaign finance law. From the start of the recall process until the date the election was official—five full months—Walker’s campaign was able to raise unlimited money from any source. Sheldon Adelson cut him a $500,000 check. Diane Hendricks, one of the state’s richest women, gave Walker $510,000, becoming the biggest donor to a single candidate in state history.

Democrats have responded the way that massively out-spent people must respond: They’ve made a vice out of it. On Thursday, they shot up flares about a video, from 2011, in which Walker confidently told Hendricks about his “divide and conquer” strategy. Walker’s been answering that sort of attack with the script he wrote back during the union-led Capitol coup.

“The reason we had to raise the kind of money we raised was because of the tens of millions of dollars that have come in from outside of the state from special interests in Washington,” said Walker at his Tuesday night primary victory speech, inside a packed Waukesha victory center. “They funded the protests to begin with. They funded the attacks in the Supreme Court race. [A 2011 retention election became a proxy fight over Walker’s labor and tax reforms.] You guys all know it well here—they spent tens of millions of dollars in the Senate recall election, and they’re going to spend tens and tens of millions of dollars trying to take me out.”