The incoming Republican wave crashed especially hard for Democrats in Wisconsin, who for the better part of a year fought tooth and nail to try to unseat Governor Scott Walker. Despite their efforts, Walker narrowly clinched victory by a 6-point margin. So what happened?
First, experts (and regular folks, alike) underestimated just how much support Walker had in and out of Wisconsin. Even on the campus level, the College Republicans across the state out-gunned the Democrats in campaigning and support. They touted Walker’s tuition freeze which resonated with a lot of voters still in college, as well as the parents who pay for their education. The Democrats, meanwhile, never really responded to the freeze with a sound alternative. Alternatives like student loan debt reform, which pushed by prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, could have potentially attracted recent graduates to Burke’s side. But on this, Wisconsin’s Democratic candidates were silent, costing them key votes. So much so that between 18-24 year olds in Wisconsin, Burke only won by one percentage point.
As far as state regional demographics go, Walker basically had northern and western Wisconsin locked by very wide margins. Democrats can usually count on support from Milwaukee county in statewide elections, but people seem to forget that Walker was county executive of Milwaukee county for 8 years prior to his ascension to the governorship. In fact, he won his 2008 county exec re-election bid by nearly 18 percentage points. The WOW counties (Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha counties. The Counties that surround Milwaukee) have always been crucial to the success of Walker. They are some of the largest, most conservative areas in the state. And this election cycle they came through big time with an average victory margin of 46 percentage points in favor of Walker.
The Chris Christie-led Republican Governors Association also pumped $2 million into radio and TV ads the week leading up to the election. This money allowed Walker-supported airplay to far outpace Burke’s. The bottom line is that a Republican like Walker is a very formidable candidate in the state of Wisconsin. It was going to take a near-perfect, gargantuan effort for whoever got the bid to take out Walker.
On top of all this, Mary Burke was ultimately not the candidate we thought she was. One of her biggest miscues was that she failed to separate herself from Walker at key points in the campaign. Many thought that since the race was at a dead heat during the closing months, the two gubernatorial debates were crucial for her to position herself as a more attractive alternative to Walker. But during these debates, she let him off the hook multiple times. Given that, the debates ended up not benefiting either candidate, which really constitutes a loss for Burke.
Besides not separating herself as a candidate, Burke also allowed mini scandals to wreak havoc on her campaign. Burke saw two key campaign officials leave at key moments, drawing negative attention to the campaign as a whole. Fielding, former finance director for the Burke campaign, left in April of this year due to Burke allegedly paying him incredibly low wages. Another top Burke consultant, Eric Schnurer, was canned due to accusations of plagiarizing other Democratic economic plans word for word and passing them off as creations of Burke’s own. That incident, combined with the video of Burke struggling to define the word plagiarism made for a very unpleasant ordeal for the Burke campaign.
Burke very well could have overcome all of that to beat Walker, but the final nail in her hopes for victory came in the form of a scandal involving her time at Trek Bicycle company. For those unfamiliar, Burke ran for governor as a job-creating Democrat and got a significant amount of traction on that angle. It was her strongest selling point as a candidate. From her own campaign website: “Mary played a central role in Trek’s expansion as the Director of European Operations. Despite not speaking a single foreign language, she established sales and distribution operations in seven countries over just three years – supporting manufacturing jobs at home by increasing sales from just $3 million to over $50 million annually.”
In typical October surprise fashion though, the Wisconsin Reporter revealed that Burke was actually fired by her own family for her incompetence and abrasive managerial style while in Europe. Burke steadfastly denied the allegations, but based on what both sides admitted, it was likely true. Burke tried to change course and present herself as a candidate who learned from her mistakes and was ready to lead, but the damage was done. It’s not a good look for a candidate when their strongest point of appeal was based on a fabrication. This report made undecided and independent voters lose trust in Burke, something that is evident in Walker winning independents by 11 points on election night.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say that Walker won’t ever again lose in Wisconsin. At least not until Wisconsin Dems develop candidates and a narrative that better connects with Wisconsin voters. Which might not happen for a while. If Walker wants to, he can choose to have a long, sustainable career as governor in Wisconsin. But it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Walker looks to set his sights on a different campaign trail. But the question remains: Will he be unbeatable in the 49 other states that don’t end in -isconsin? To put it bluntly and amusingly: LOL NO.
Chris Christie benefited from Walker’s win as much as Walker did. As chair of the Republican Governors Association, he proved that he can get a wide spectrum of Republican candidates elected on national scale. That already gives Christie a leg up on Walker and the other heap of candidates expressing interest in the 2016 Republican nomination. Speaking of those candidates, Walker would be entering in a crowded field with guys like the aforementioned Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan. All of these guys have better ideas, a stronger national profile and more experience dealing with national media than Walker. If Walker doesn’t look like he can change course from empty rhetoric and the divisive, petty politics of the last 4 years, he’s gonna be left in the dust come primary season.