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WEST BEND, Wis.
Speaking to a barn full of supporters here, Scott Walker delivers some surprising news: “It is hard to believe, but this is actually my first reelection.”
The line draws peals of laughter. Walker is in the midst of his third gubernatorial campaign in four years. Two years after winning his first term in 2010, he became the first governor in U.S. history to win a recall election, and now in 2014, he must run yet a third time to secure a second term.
“One of my favorite signs at our kickoff in April was a guy who made a hand-made sign that said ‘three-peat,’ ” Walker tells the crowd. (Full disclosure: I co-authored a book with Walker, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.”)
But a Walker three-peat is no sure thing. The governor has certainly amassed a record of achievement that should make him a shoe-in for reelection. He took a $3.6 billion deficit and turned it into a $1 billion surplus. After the state lost 133,000 jobs and 27,000 businesses under Gov. Jim Doyle (D), Walker created more than 100,000 jobs and added 20,000 new businesses. The unemployment rate dropped from 7.1 percent to 5.7 percent today. After years of double-digit tax increases, Walker cut taxes for every taxpayer in the state. He froze tuition for two years at the University of Wisconsin and promises to keep that freeze in place during his second term. And thanks to the collective-bargaining reforms he enacted, local governments have been able to balance their budgets without cutting services, schools have put more money into classrooms and the state’s pension is the only one in the country that is fully funded.
“On just about every measure that matters, Wisconsin is much better off than we were four years ago,” Walker says. “So in any other state, or at any other time in this state’s history, a record like that should warrant reelection, right?”
But Wisconsin is not any other state. It is one of the most closely divided purple states in the country. The most recent Marquette Law School poll showed that “the Wisconsin governor’s race has tightened to a dead heat” with Walker tied with former Doyle commerce secretary Mary Burke, 46-46 among registered voters. (He holds a 3-point lead among likely voters.) And while Walker has outraised his opponent, he knows he is still public enemy No. 1 to the union bosses and points out that the AFL-CIO recently announced that it is planning to spend at least $300 million this year to unseat GOP governors in five states — Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and here in Wisconsin.
“My real opponent is complacency,” Walker says, “people being lulled into thinking, just because I won before that somehow that means we are just going to walk into reelection. The left has not forgotten. The haters out there — the unions and others — certainly aren’t spending their money elsewhere. They are going after me and a handful of governors, because they know that’s where the action is, not in the House, not in the Senate.”
The haters thought they smelled blood in the water recently, after the release of court filings related to an investigation of his 2012 recall election. In one, special prosecutor Francis Schmitz requested documents to determine whether Walker was part of a “criminal scheme” to coordinate the activities of conservative groups. News outlets jumped at the chance to tie Walker to such a scheme. Buried or ignored in most of these stories was the fact that a federal judge had shut down the investigation, saying prosecutors had no case.
Undeterred, Burke put up an ad declaring “Prosecutors claim the governor led a criminal scheme that broke election law.” To Burke’s embarrassment, the same day her ad went up, the prosecutor issued a statement through his lawyer declaring that Walker was never a target of the investigation and the documents “did not establish the existence of a crime.” The prosecutor said, “It is wrong for any person to point to this sentence in a legal argument as a finding by the Special Prosecutor that Governor Walker has engaged in a criminal scheme.”
The false attack not only misfired, it backfired. Instead of hurting Walker, it energized his supporters. Now, Walker needs to build on that energy and translate it into a third victory in four years.
The New York Times reports this weekend that “Democrats are determined to defeat Gov. Scott Walker” and warns that his will be one of the “hardest fought races” in the country.
The left has not forgotten what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin.
Neither should conservatives.
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Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge
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© 2016 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research