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Scott Walker's Gamble: GOP Governor Remains Red in Blue State

Most of the GOP governors elected in blue states in amid the rise of the Tea Party have moved to the political middle. Then there’s Scott Walker.

GREEN BAY, Wisconsin -- Most of the GOP governors elected in blue states in 2009 and 2010 amid the rise of the Tea Party have moved to the political middle as they sought re-election over the last year.

Then there’s Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor turned himself into a conservative hero and liberal pariah three months into his tenure by signing a law that severely curtailed the power of unions for state employees and then surviving a Democratic attempt to recall him over it.

Now, in a state that Obama won in both 2008 and 2012, Walker is running an unabashedly conservative re-election campaign, taking no steps to move to the left on policy and instead bragging of his role as a boogeyman to Democrats both here and nationally.

“This is going to be a tough election. Last week we saw two of the national big government union bosses come into this state and say I’m their No.1 target,” he told the workers at a plant in Hudson, Wisconsin on Monday. (The head of the National Education Association recently called defeating Walker a “top priority,” while the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees says it has a “score to settle” with him.)

“You know why? We took the power out of their hands.”

In a second term, Walker is promising to require people who get food stamp benefits to pass drug tests, an idea that not only is barred by current federal law but is viewed by Democrats as stigmatizing the poor. He wants to expand a state-operated school vouchers program, another issue that sharply divides the two parties in Wisconsin.

The Republican has pledged to continue opposing Obamacare if he is re-elected and refuse hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even as other GOP governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich have accepted the money.

These policies that he's implemented are not the policies that you'll hear espoused by, say, Governor Christie or Governor Romney or any of the establishment Republicans. This is conservatism here.

Walker is strongly defending the provision that stripped many collective bargaining rights from public employees and the voter ID law he signed early in his tenure.

And the Wisconsin governor has not ruled out, in a second term, signing “right to work” legislation which would weaken private sector unions in Wisconsin and is strongly opposed by Democrats.

“These policies that he's implemented are not the policies that you'll hear espoused by, say, Governor Christie or Governor Romney or any of the establishment Republicans. This is conservatism here. It is on parade and it's now front and center for everyone to see,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said earlier this year, praising Walker.

The governor, who survived an attempt by Democrats to recall him in 2012, is taking a risk with this approach. If he loses re-election, Walker will almost certainly not be able to run for president in 2016, something he has signaled interest in.

But if he wins in November, Walker could enter the 2016 race with a unique appeal as an uncompromising conservative who somehow still won three elections in a blue state.

Walker’s approach has turned his campaign into one of the most closely-contested in the country. Republican Party fundraisers say they are watching the race carefully, ready to urge Walker to run for president if he is able to win again here. Christie, head of the Republican Governors Association, campaigned alongside Walker on Monday in Hudson, in a sign of the interest in the race from national Republicans.

The GOP here is hammering Burke for using language in her jobs plan that was borrowed from previous Democratic candidates from across the country.

The Democratic Governors Association has also invested heavily in defeating Walker, and Michelle Obama was in Milwaukee on Monday, campaigning for Mary Burke, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Democrats say it is critical that the people who backed Obama in 2012, particularly college students and blacks, return to the polls in November. Party officials fought unsuccessfully to prevent the voter ID law from going into effect and are now worried because an estimated 300,000 potential voters must get a driver’s license or other document before Election Day.

Burke, a former business executive who is now a school board member in Madison, is effectively tied in polls with Walker. But that has little to do with her political skill, as polls show many Wisconsin voters don’t know much about her, even a month before the election.

This is an election about Walker, who is the political inverse of Obama, beloved by conservatives and hated by liberals.

In an era with a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans, Walker embodies this polarization as much as any American politician besides the president. Walker didn’t create the ideological gulf here: Wisconsin had a huge number of Democratic and Republican partisans and few swing voters before he ran for governor in 2010.

At the same time, he has hardened the divide. His union proposal passed without a single vote from Democrats in the state legislature and the measure requiring a photo ID to vote similarly polarized lawmakers. He has heavily reduced education spending, cut both property and income taxes and enacted a law requiring women who want abortions to undergo an ultrasound, all with strong liberal opposition.

“Growing polarization was clearly visible in the state before Walker’s 2010 campaign,” said Charles Franklin, the leading pollster in Wisconsin. “His actions since 2011 have played into that and furthered it.”

In recent polls against Burke, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker is earning about 96 percent of the Republican vote in Wisconsin and less than 3 percent backing from Democrats. (Last year, in his re-election campaign, Christie won an estimated 32 percent of Democrats in New Jersey.)

Walker won in 2010 with about 52 percent of the vote and 53 percent two years later during the recall, suggesting he has a very solid level of support and almost as large a base of opposition.

Image: Mary Burke
Democrat Mary Burke is challenging incumbent Republican Scott Walker to become the next governor of Wisconsin, a state President Obama won in 2008 and 2012.Andy Manis / AP

He seems to embrace partisanship, unlike most politicians, who try to avoid describing themselves as tightly tied to their party. Walker has been able to enact such a conservative agenda in Wisconsin because his fellow Republicans control both houses of the legislature, and he thinks that’s a model for the country.

“Conventional wisdom in Washington for years has been that divided government is good because of a check and a balance. What I believe happens all too often, regardless of which party — because the same sorts of things happened to George Bush when — at the end of his term, when Democrats were in charge of the House and the Senate — is there’s gridlock,” he told PBS in an interview last year.

“And I think the better argument is give one party a chance, give them a chance with a House and a Senate and a president. Give them a few years to see what they can do. And if you don’t like it, put another party in.”

“I don't think having a division amongst the electorate is a bad thing," Walker told the Journal Sentinel earlier this year.” I think having a healthy debate about which ideas work is good."

It doesn’t have to be this divisive

Burke does not agree. As she was walking through a teacher supply store in Green Bay on Tuesday, a liberal-leaning woman praised Burke, saying she would be better than the “garbage we have in there now.” The candidate, while not rebuking the voter, started talking about the Wisconsin of her dreams. She predicted that if she were elected, by next Thanksgiving, the state’s residents could eat dinner with their relatives from the other political party with little acrimony.

“It doesn’t have to be this divisive,” Burke said.

In an interview, she expanded on the idea that her replacing Walker would reduce polarization, noting “I have a lot of friends who are Republicans.”

“I will sit down with Republicans (in the state’s legislature) on day one, and hammer out how we can find that common ground,” Burke said.

“People aren’t that divisive,” she added, raising her voice to emphasize the point.

But Burke is living in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, and she seems to know it. President Obama is likely to come here and stump for Burke over the next month, a sign that Democrats know they have to match the enthusiasm Walker draws from Republicans with an equally polarizing figure from the left.

And Burke left open the possibility of seeking a Medicaid expansion through her executive power if she is elected and Republicans in the legislature won’t cooperate, suggesting she may embrace partisanship to achieve her goals, like Obama and Walker.