Why Wisconsin’s Polarized Politics Makes Scott Walker a 2016 GOP Contender

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 12 2014 12:12 PM

The Rise of Scott Walker

Wisconsin may be the most polarized state in the Union. It’s also what might put its governor in the White House.

(Continued from Page 1)

Enter Mary Burke, Walker’s Democratic opponent. Burke’s main strength is in her family business, Trek, which employs 1,600 people. But two weeks after Burke entered the race, 70 percent of Wisconsin residents either had no opinion of her or didn’t know who she was. That number was the same three months later. Although she's more charismatic than Walker’s former opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, she still risks running the same sort of phlegmatic campaign that cost Barrett the recall election.

Burke has never run a partisan campaign, and her idealism shows. Instead of focusing on high-profile events in Madison or Milwaukee, Burke drives around the state seven days a week in her Ford Escape to meet with locals. She’s also stressed that she wants the majority of her contributions to come from Wisconsin residents. Though she opposes Act 10, Burke doesn’t want to use that as a wrecking ball against Walker, according to Burke spokesman Joe Zepecki. Instead, they’ll be campaigning on jobs and raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour—an idea 62 percent of voters support and Walker vehemently opposes.

In the meantime, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has already scooped up maryburke.com and is defining her as “Madison Millionaire Mary Burke.” (Of course, Republicans touted fellow millionaire Ron Johnson as a “jobs creator” when he ran for Senate in 2010.)

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At this stage, Burke needs to tap wealthy in-state donors. Her campaign raised a healthy $1.7 million by the end of the year—a figure tripled by the Walker campaign. “Scott Walker is going to have more money than we do. We know that,” Zepecki says. “We don’t need to outspend him—we need to spend smarter.”

Could election fatigue also cause a lower turnout? Not likely, Franklin says. Still, it’s been enough of a drain that one-third of voters have stopped talking to friends and family members about politics because of conflicts over the recall. “There’s certainly been a cost, psychically, to the public,” Franklin said. “They decided it was better to stop talking about it at all.”

Even if voters don’t want to talk about it, the implications of the upcoming election may be even bigger this time around. The 2014 election is just one variable in a potential Walker 2016 presidential run. There have certainly been plenty of think pieces speculating that he’s going to run for president, and Walker isn’t doing much to dispel the rumors. He’s a regular on Morning Joe and at national Republican events, he headed the Republican Governors Association, he writes op-eds in the Washington Post about the state of national politics, and he came out with a memoir last year. He gets around.

“He is very ambitious, he’s frequently underestimated, and he’s young,” Mayer says. “Republicans love him, Democrats loathe him … Ronald Reagan was the same.” (Walker name-dropped Reagan 11 times in his memoir.) But unlike Reagan, Walker is no great orator, and he certainly doesn’t sound like a Beltway insider. Unlike his fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, Walker sports a thick “Mawaukee” accent—just listen to any of his speeches about growing “jabs” in “Wis-CAN-sin.”

At this point, the question isn’t so much “Will Walker run?” as “Why wouldn’t he?” That said, it’s hard to predict what lurking scandal could upend a governor’s ambitions in the next two years (see: Christie, Chris). Walker is already entangled in a complex John Doe investigation examining outside groups’ spending during the recall. The Wisconsin Club for Growth has sued to shut down the investigation, but it’s unclear whether the fundraising shadiness could be linked back to Walker.

At an event in Washington to promote his book a few months ago, Walker was asked who his ideal candidate for president would be. Walker’s response sounded suspiciously familiar: "An ideal candidate to me would be a current or former governor," Walker said. "Just because I think governors have executive experience and, more importantly, I think there's a real sense across America that people want an outsider."

Correction, Feb. 12, 2014: This article originally said Wisconsin's mandatory ultrasound law shut down a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. That provision of the law is being challenged in court, and the clinic in question remains open.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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