Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker really would have preferred to be sitting in the White House just now. But he got trumped in his bid for the 2016 Republican nomination by a candidate who was better at practicing the “divide-and-conquer” politics that the anti-labor zealot pioneered in the upper Midwest.
Walker briefly led Republican presidential polls in 2015. Then he was shredded by Donald Trump, who turned the hapless front-runner’s record into a negative—telling conservative crowds that “Wisconsin’s doing terribly. First of all, it’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them. They’re borrowing money like crazy.… The schools are a disaster, and they’re fighting like crazy because there’s no money for the schools. The hospitals and education is a disaster.”
That blunt assessment from a fellow Republican exposed Walker as a blustering bumbler who got high marks from right-wing media but low marks for actual accomplishments. Walker’s presidential poll numbers tanked—so completely that he quit the race as an asterisk. Always quick to put party ahead of principle, Walker soon pledged his loyalty to the man who had crushed his own ambitions and became President Trump’s errand boy in the heartland.
Now the governor who dreamed of being president is stuck in Wisconsin, slogging his way through another run for the job he tried to put behind him. It is not going well. The Real Clear Politics survey of recent polls has Democrat Tony Evers, the state’s mild-mannered superintendent of public instruction, leading Walker by four points.
The “help” that Walker is getting from Trump, who is flying into the state this week to campaign for his Midwestern minion, may not be all that helpful—as the president’s approval rating is lower than the governor’s, and independent voters surveyed for the respected Marquette Law School Poll now disapprove of Trump 52-42.
But that is not the worst of it for the governor. As the election has approached, his own team is turning against him. Four of Walker’s former cabinet appointees went public with scorching criticisms of the failed presidential contender. “Governor Walker has consistently eschewed sound management practices in favor of schemes or cover-up and has routinely put his future ahead of the state,” wrote former state corrections secretary Ed Wall, former financial institutions secretary Peter Bildsten, and Paul Jadin, who was the first secretary of Walker’s high-profile economic-development agency. “The result is micromanagement, manipulation and mischief. We have all been witness to more than our share of this.”
The former Walker aides complained about “pervasive questionable practices within the administration” and identified instances where Walker neglected state duties in order to advance his national political ambitions. “When he decided to run for President in 2015 he subordinated Wisconsin interests to those in Iowa and New Hampshire and his policy/budget proposals started to clash with members of his own party who still would have to stand for election in Wisconsin,” wrote Wall, Bildsten, and Jadin.
These Walker appointees say they will vote for Evers on November 6. And two of them, Wall and Bildsten, have videotaped pro-Evers messages that are likely to turn up in campaign ads.
Losing the support of key aides is one thing. It’s quite another to have them declare that “it became clear that [Walker’s] focus was not on meeting his obligations to the public but to advancing his own political career at a tremendous cost to taxpayers and families.”
That’s how the 2018 campaign is going for Scott Walker. So Walker, always a fiercely negative campaigner, is going for the gutter. A favorite of the Koch brothers and other billionaire donors (who delight in the fact that the Wisconsinite has taken the lead in advancing their anti-labor, anti-environment, anti–public education agendas), Walker has always campaigned with a huge bankroll. And he has always used out-of-state money to smear his Democratic rivals.
After this year’s August 14 Democratic primary identified Evers as his challenger, Walker unleashed a wild-eyed assault on the Democratic nominee—using expensive broadcast advertising and Donald Trump–style social media (including tweets from the governor) to portray Evers as soft on pornography and crime, unpatriotic, and a spendthrift.
The Kochs’ political operation even weighed in with a $1.8 million TV, cable- and digital-ad buy touting Walker and poking at the Democrat.
By the old measures, Evers should have been overwhelmed. A newcomer to partisan politics—the statewide post he holds is elected on a nonpartisan ballot in off-year elections—he came out of the crowded Democratic primary with little money and a relatively short time in which to gear up for a fall run against one of the most strategically savvy and relentlessly negative campaigners in American politics.
Yet Evers wasn’t overwhelmed. He embraced his charismatic running mate, 31-year-old former state Representative Mandela Barnes, and launched a grassroots campaign that saw the newly minted Democratic ticket touring small towns and urban neighborhoods with an old-school Wisconsin progressive message of support for education and the environment. They talked about fixing roads and helping farmers. And they highlighted concerns about a bizarre scheme by the governor—who has cut so many public programs—to give as much as $4.5 billion in tax dollars to Foxconn, a multinational corporation that Trump and Walker tout as a job creator for southeastern Wisconsin. And they drew unprecedented national support: Evers and Barnes campaigning on Monday in Milwaukee with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and they will be joined in coming days by former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden.
There’s a sense of possibility with the Evers campaign that was not evident with those of the governor’s previous challengers. In part, this is because of the nature of the 2018 campaign season. US Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is running well ahead in her bid for a new term, and the Democratic ticket is generally seen as stronger than in the past.
But there is more to it than that. The negative campaigning that once worked for Walker has, so far, fallen flat, while the positive campaigning by Evers appears to be connecting with voters in a state where the term “Walker fatigue” has entered the political discourse.
The deterioration of support for the governor has shaken him. He tweets about a looming blue wave and imagines that he can avert it by going even more negative.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that Walker’s campaign was contacting voters with an “11-minute poll for the second-term Republican governor [that] tests eight lines of attack against his Democratic foe, state Superintendent Tony Evers, possibly offering a window into Walker’s future media strategy.”
Walker’s future media strategy is well established. He will keep going negative for as long as there is a dollar in his campaign account—and, thanks to his assiduous courting of the billionaire class, there will always be plenty of dollars in his bank account.
But Walker’s struggling, as Wisconsinites figure out—with an assist from the governor’s former aides—that Scott Walker practices low-road politics in order to distract voters from the “turmoil” and the “disasters” that Donald Trump recognized back in 2015.