MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker is casting himself as a turnaround artist, seeking re-election with a pitch to voters that he revamped the state’s spending and business climate in just four years.
For a governor with presidential aspirations, it’s a case he’s likely preparing for a national audience as well — but first he’ll have to get through a tighter-than-expected re-election race against Democrat Mary Burke, a former state secretary of commerce.
As if that wasn’t enough, analysts say that his race could also say a lot about the political strength of labor unions, given that they’ve made defeating Mr. Walker a top priority since he took on public employee unions in 2011.
“That’s what opens the door for him for a potential 2016 bid, because it gives him credibility, and it gives him an accomplishment he can hang his hat on,” said Hogan Gidley, a GOP strategist. “And the accomplishment and victory was over a formidable and infuriating opponent in the unions.”
Mr. Walker went on to survive a union onslaught and a recall election — the first governor in U.S. history to do so — but has had a bull’s-eye on his back ever since pushing through legislation to revamp costly collective bargaining over pensions and health care. Leaders from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Education Association (NEA) say they have a score to settle with Mr. Walker in the November election.
“They consider me to be their No. 1 target, and the reason is simple: We took the power out of the big government interests, the big government union bosses, and put it back into the hands of the taxpayer,” Mr. Walker said.
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Despite their efforts, a Marquette University poll released Wednesday showed Mr. Walker has opened up a 5 percentage point lead over Mrs. Burke among likely voters — bolstered in part by recent allegations that the Democrat plagiarized part of her jobs plan, lifting it from other campaigns.
More than half of voters had heard about the plagiarism reports, with 18 percent saying that the accusations make them less likely to vote for the Harvard Business School alum.
“Really, this has been the worst two weeks of her campaign,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.
On the flip side, more than one in four voters said the statistic that Wisconsin ranks 33rd out of 50 states in job creation makes them less likely to vote for Mr. Walker.
That complicates Mr. Walker’s turnaround-artist pitch, with Mrs. Burke saying he has delivered less than half of the 250,000 private sector jobs he promised to create in his first term.
“In August Wisconsin lost another 4,300 jobs,” Mrs. Burke says in a recent campaign ad. “That is probably why, in September, Scott Walker is attacking my jobs plan, saying it takes ideas from other states.
“Well you know what? Of course it does,” she says. “As governor, I am going to take the best ideas wherever I can find them, and if Scott Walker had done the same, maybe we wouldn’t be dead last in Midwest job growth.”
Asked at a campaign stop why neighboring Minnesota, which raised taxes on the wealthy and increased the minimum wage, has outpaced Wisconsin — which cut taxes and spending and weakened the unions, in job growth — Mr. Walker blamed uncertainty stemming from the fight with labor unions.
“I think you ask just about any employer in the state, and they will tell you they were frozen for about a year and a half because of the protests, the first wave of recalls and the second wave of recalls,” Mr. Walker said.
Low-key, key to success
Running in his third election in four years, Mr. Walker, a married father of two boys, has built a loyal band of supporters in Wisconsin who say he has put the state back on track after inheriting a mess in 2011 from then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat.
“He has got a base that is very committed,” said Marc J. Marotta, a Democrat who worked in the Doyle administration, “He could go out and break [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers’ leg tomorrow, and he would still have that base intact.”
The pro-Walker forces see the 46-year-old, who appears to be balding and whose rather ordinary look makes it easy for him to blend in with crowds, as an optimistic warrior — one of the few politicians willing to stand his ground and fight for what he believes in.
Tom Lorenzen, 65, a backer, said that Mr. Walker, “has lived up to what he said he would do.”
“That, to me, is huge, because you have a lot of politicians who come up and say a lot of things, and when they get elected, they do the opposite,” Mr. Lorenzen said.
Other supporters said they like that he is a pro-life Christian and that he has not abandoned his conservative principles.
Mr. Walker opposes the Common Core education standards that have riled many conservative activists, and he refused to expand Medicaid the way President Obama wanted under the new federal health law.
He signed legislation enacting tighter voter ID requirements, approved a budget that stripped funding for Planned Parenthood and signed a concealed weapons bill into law. And he signed legislation requiring women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound, and has pushed to expand school voucher programs.
“It would be hard to see a Republican presidential candidate getting to his right across a wide range of issues,” Mr. Franklin said.
This week, Mr. Walker campaigned with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and another potential 2016 presidential candidate. Mr. Franklin said Mr. Christie’s visit underscored Mr. Walker’s low-key style.
“Walker blusters a lot less, but is perhaps more consistently conservative,” he said. “Where Walker is skillful is in not talking about the most divisive issues that he nevertheless takes conservative positions on, and that allows him to appear more mild-mannered, to appear less strident and less clearly conservative on issues — where if he talked about what he has done, what he has signed and the legislation he has supported, it would be quite clear that he is among the most conservative governors in the country.”
Strategists from both parties say that style could prove to be both a strength and a weakness for Mr. Walker in a presidential race, where he is likely to be surrounded by conservative firebrands like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as the blunt-talking Mr. Christie.
Retired Army Veteran Thomas D. Nord, 68, likened Mr. Walker’s approach to being a “tiger in the grass.”
“He has the eyes forward, like a predator gauging the distance between him and the prey, and he has intellect and wisdom to go with it,” Mr. Nord said.
Asked how his style compared to Mr. Cruz, Mr. Nord said the Texas Republican is more like a “lion in the grass.”
“The tiger in the grass is more of an opportunist, in a good way, while a lion is aggressive and will come annihilate you.”
Potential 2016 obstacles
Mr. Walker needs to win re-election to remain a viable 2016 candidate amid a field crowded with other governors, senators and former officeholders.
“A loss sinks him,” Mr. Gidley said.
And there are other dangers lurking as well — including a lingering investigation into whether Mr. Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated its spending with conservative groups during the recall election.
There are also questions about whether Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, will run, perhaps stealing some of Mr. Walker’s Badger State thunder.
And there are worries about the state budget.
Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that Wisconsin faces a nearly $1.8 billion structural deficit when it enters the next biennial budget debate.
The report comes after the state took in less revenue then it projected last year and after Mr. Walker has pushed through an estimated $2 billion in tax relief.
This year, the legislative watchdog is projecting the legislature will have to plug a hole in the current budget of nearly $400 million.
Addressing those shortfalls could leave Mr. Walker with few good choices. In New Jersey, a similar budget shortfall forced Mr. Christie to defer pension payments, causing him political headaches.
Mr. Walker, though, says the forecast is off because it assumes no changes in revenue growth or spending, and says that the combination of “reasonable” budget adjustments and more traditional revenue growth will yield a half-billion-dollar surplus.
The jury is out on whether he is right.
“That will be a challenge for him — especially given that he is running now and presumably would run in a presidential race as the guy who fixed his budget,” Mr. Franklin said. “It’s a real problem politically if his budget does turn worse. If it turns better, that helps.”