Scott Walker: can the Wisconsin governor survive in the age of Trump?

Tony Evers leads, boosting Democratic hopes. But the governor who survived two elections and a recall thrives in adversity

In November, Scott Walker will seek to beat the Democrat Tony Evers and secure a third term in the Wisconsin governors mansion. Like many midterm races across the US, the election will take place under the shadow of a president who has polarized the electorate like none before.

Democrats are energized. So the question is, can a governor who took on the unions and survived a ferocious fightback muster enough Republican support to succeed?

Donald Trumps former chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, told the Guardian that when Walker faced a recall election in 2012, he was aided by grassroots conservatives going to the sound of [the guns] to save Scott Walker.

Now, though, that support may not be so strong. Longtime Wisconsin conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, for one, is wary. Theres definitely voter fatigue, he said, questioning whether Walkers base will still crawl through glass and walk through fire to vote for their governor.

A really positive story

On a recent warm Sunday afternoon in Elkhorn, at a party office in a storefront on the town square, flames and broken glass were in noticeably short supply. In front of a friendly crowd, 50 or so strong, Walker mounted a small podium. He was wearing the politicians weekend uniform: creased khakis and a plaid blue shirt.

Fresh from dedicating a basketball arena in downtown Milwaukee, he touted his economic record. He had, he told the crowd, a great story to tell.

Its a really positive story, he said. We have in 2018 more people in the workforce than ever before in the history of this state.

Talking to the Guardian, he said the Elkhorn event was less about energizing the base and more about energizing volunteers to go out and talk to neighbors, co-workers, people they worship with, on down the line.

His political life has not always been so staid. After his first election win, in 2010, Walker set about trying to break Wisconsins public sector unions. The ensuing fight led to protesters occupying the state capitol in Madison and Democrats in the Senate fleeing the state to deny Republicans a quorum. Such remarkable scenes spawned an unprecedented recall attempt, a desperate push to turn Walker out of office.

He won that race and then won re-election.

But in a swing state with few swing voters, the partisan divide has only grown deeper. In Elkhorn, Walker was introduced by Amy Loudenbeck, a Republican state representative. She complained about a sign outside her Democratic opponents house, which she said read: Hate has no home here.

Does that mean that they dont hate us? Because I kinda feel like they do, she said.

Walker duly built on her comments, talking about the anger and hatred of the left. Afterwards, he brushed aside a question about why he has trailed Evers in the polls.

Any generic Democrat would be about where [Evers] is now, he said. Most people dont know hardly anything about him. I think its incumbent for us to make the contrast between what he wants to do next and what we want to do next.

Walker and his allies have been trying hard to make that contrast plain. Since Evers won the Democratic primary on 14 August, he has faced a barrage of negative ads. An elected official who oversees Wisconsins public schools, he has been attacked for not revoking the teaching licenses of instructors accused of watching pornography in schools and soliciting sex from students.

A slash-and-burn opponent

In person, Evers looks like the rural school principal he once was. Dressed in a dark shirt and a silver tie, belt loosely round his khaki pants, he made the rounds at a restaurant just off the highway between Madison and Milwaukee. Oddly, he never really asked anyone for their vote. Instead, he made occasionally awkward if invariably pleasant introductions.

Afterwards, he discussed his campaign with the Guardian. He saw a hopeful sign, he said, in the number of Wisconsinites who voted in local school elections in the past few yearsto raise their own taxes, in order to better fund public schools.

Half of those people who voted for those referendums voted for Donald Trump and Scott Walker, he said, so we feel that not only we are able to energize the Democratic base but also Republicans and independents.

He criticized Walker, saying: Not only has he severely cut education but [he has] spent his time demeaning the teaching profession. Walkers effort to crush public sector unions had a deep impact on teachers. As a result, Evers said, lots of people have left the profession and lots of people are not going into the profession.

The negative ads, he said, were no surprise. Thats his MO, he said, hes always been a slash-and-burn opponent and we fully expected it.

Outside groups have run ads in return, rebutting the attacks and insisting the Democrat puts our childrens safety and the truth first.

However, Walkers methods have worked before, even in a state where he admits that even without the motivating factor of the Trump presidency, Democrats start with 48% of the vote, even if they nominate Daffy Duck.

Donald Trump, Scott Walker and the Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, participate in a groundbreaking event in Mt Pleasant. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Still, since Trump took office, Democrats have taken a number of wins in Wisconsin. This year they have picked up two state senate seats in Republican areas and won a state supreme court seat with a candidate perceived to be liberal a first in decades.

Sykes pointed to another potential problem. Walkers base lies in the suburban counties that surround Milwaukee, areas that have typically given him more than 70% of the vote. But in those counties in 2016, Trump ran far behind other Republican candidates.

Sykes also said, however, that despite the fact Walker is behind, the Republicans campaign is comfortable being exactly where they are right now. He looked back to 2014, when everybody really thought [Walker] was in trouble and he did just fine.

Sykes noted that Walkers campaign is staffed with veterans of electoral dogfights. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a state Republican strategist echoed such thinking, saying the governor was sailing into a pretty big storm but hes built a pretty good ship.

Walker, Sykes concluded, has been through all of this before and Tony Evers has not.

True. But no one has ever been through a midterm election with Donald Trump leading the party.

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