While in person Burke is passionate and commanding, she is not the type of ideological candidate who can ignite the base and rile up its various parts: union members, minorities, younger voters, single women. She has pushed issues like the state Constitution’s ban on gay marriage, highlighted a voter ID law she says was designed to keep black voters from the polls, and says the right things about trade deals that hurt unions, but not with the same snap in her voice as when she talks about how competitive companies need smart long-term planning. When she tells her political origin story, it doesn’t include pictures of Kennedy over the television set or visits to the shop floor. “I grew up in a household where we were independents,” she said in an interview. “We didn’t put labels on things—Democrat or Republican. We talked about issues, but how you’re going to solve issues. That’s who we are in Wisconsin.”
Burke says that Walker is the reason for the polarization in Wisconsin; Walker’s camp says the polarization existed before he got there. (Gore and Kerry barely won the state in 2000 and 2004.) The two strategies in Wisconsin echo a familiar discussion about the national political picture. If polarization is the new permanent condition of politics, that requires tougher partisan politicians who stake bold ideological claims, cementing their base and pulling just enough from the middle to win.
The alternative view is that there is still a group of voters in the middle, and you can aim for them without losing your base. In the Republican Party, Chris Christie represents something closer to the latter view. Christie stresses his ability to work with Democrats. Walker doesn’t do that so much. When Walker talks about solving problems in Washington, his prescription is single-party control, with Republicans occupying the White House and holding strong majorities in the House and Senate.
Republicans see an opening in Burke’s base. She is still undefined with voters. Forty-nine percent said they either haven’t heard enough about her or don’t know if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of her in the most recent Marquette poll. Republicans believe that if they can upset the image she is trying to sell to Democrats, they will weaken her turnout. “She is a great candidate in the laboratory,” Schimming says. “But is she who she says she is?” Fliers dropped at union households introduce the Harvard-educated Burke as “A Middle-Class Success Story” and the great-granddaughter of farmers. The Walker forces want to portray her as a wealthy hypocrite, which is why Walker ran ads tying Burke to outsourcing practices at Trek. “I believe the Democratic Party platform is not in favor of outsourcing,” says a strategist working on the race. Republicans have been making an issue of Burke’s wealth, talking up her expensive vacations and second home. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Ron Johnson, are nervous that such attacks seek to demonize wealth, but the Walker campaign is willing to take that risk. With such a close electorate, Republicans believe they need to open only a small crack in Burke’s base. “All we need is a few points,” Schimming says.
At noon each day for the last two years, a group of anti-Walker voters have gathered in the rotunda of the State Capitol to sing songs. It is an ongoing protest against both his policies and the police efforts to keep them from gathering during the heated fights earlier in Walker’s term, when the Capitol was packed with protesters. This past Monday, there were a dozen singing “This Land Is Your Land” and modifying the lyrics to include shots at the incumbent. “Scott Walker will never push us out/This house was made for you and me,” they sang. On “We Shall Overcome,” they modified the lyrics to “Walker won’t be governor, someday, someday soon!”
The singing is a testament to vigilance and faith-keeping, but it’s also a symbol of the challenge facing Wisconsin’s unions: There is a faithful, vocal opposition to Walker among their ranks, but will it be enough to mobilize on Election Day? “No one in the union movement will forget what Scott Walker did to us,” says Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. If that’s so, then Burke should have lots of help mobilizing her base with the strength of the union behind her. If not, it will be yet another blow for the movement that also sees Walker as a national symbol: as an inspiration for governors across the country to seek limits on union rights. The race is a test for the unions as much as it is a test for Walker’s theory of political leadership.
The test is not just about raw power in a state where both sides have solid turn-out-the-vote operations, honed after so many battles. It’s about what messages might move voters in any state. Can a Republican be brought down by close association with the Koch brothers? Can opposition to the union be turned into a greater argument about a lawmaker’s empathy? “You’re beginning to see a shift when voters are asked ‘Who cares about you?’ ” says Bloomingdale, “and that’s starting here in Wisconsin.” In the Marquette poll, 45 percent say that “cares about people like you” describes Walker. Forty-nine says it does not. Burke does better with the voters who know her—with 7 percent more thinking she cares about them—but 30 percent don’t know her well enough to form an opinion.
The campaign debate has now focused around jobs. The Burke campaign is running an ad showing Walker during his first race promising he will create 250,000 jobs. He hasn’t: Wisconsin lost 1,700 jobs in May and June of this year. “We’re dead last in job creation in the Midwest,” says Burke, who is making her 70-page jobs plan and pledges of fiscal conservatism the centerpiece of her campaign. Walker says he was just pushing the state to achieve high goals when he made that campaign promise. Wisconsin has created 100,000 jobs on his watch, he says, and the unemployment rate has dropped from 7.7 percent to 5.7 percent. Neither candidate has a clean shot. Burke has had to use fake math to attack Walker, and the governor defends himself with a little sleight of hand too. Burke, he says, will take the state back to the days of job losses under Walker’s predecessor, Jim Doyle, whom Burke served as commerce secretary.
“We see a shift of losing 130,000 jobs to gaining more than 100,000 jobs,” Walker says. “We see a shift of 230-some-thousand jobs.” The creative math makes Walker and his team often sound like Barack Obama did in 2012, pointing out modest improvements and offering caveats. Meanwhile, the Burke team sounds like the Republicans who regularly pointed out that the unemployment rate was not as low as Obama’s economist Christina Romer had promised in a document.
There are many styles of leadership in the Republican Party. Ted Cruz gives speeches and takes firm stands but doesn’t accomplish much of weight; he’s toxic in swing states. Chris Christie has accomplishments he can point to in the blue state of New Jersey, but conservatives don’t trust him. Walker talks like a conservative and has accomplishments to show for it. In the most recent Marquette poll, 66 percent said he was a governor who gets things done.
But Walker is not making any promises on the order of 250,000 jobs for this election. His agenda is “to build on what we’ve started,” which means a conventional mix of tax cuts and lower spending; he’s also frozen tuition at the University of Wisconsin. He’s not running on the same kind of bold program that has made him a conservative icon. But if he is re-elected, surviving the political battle will reanimate Walker’s status as a conservative risk-taker. That penchant for risks is always just below his affable surface—as Kaitlyn Riley, the Fairest of the Fairs, learned on the Freak Out. “He’s much more of a thrill seeker than I ever thought.”
*Correction, Aug. 11, 2014: This article originally misstated that Mary Burke is on the Madison County school board. She is on the Madison school board. (Return.)