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In Wisconsin, Democratic governor confronts high stakes, tough odds in re-election fight

Gov. Tony Evers' approval ratings are down, while voter worries over crime and inflation are up, the latest polling suggests.
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Theodore Keener said he was “really jolted” after a shooting earlier this month not far from his house in Racine, Wisconsin, left five people injured and the shooter dead.

“It’s just a major problem here. It’s become ridiculous, and we need a governor who will do something about it,” said Keener, a self-described independent, who voted for Republican Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial race and President Joe Biden in 2020.

Rising crime in Keener’s hometown, a city of about 80,000 that borders Milwaukee to its south, and across the state is among a growing number of issues that threaten the re-election prospects of incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — and crime is an issue his GOP opponents are eager to exploit.

Other issues include transparency in the education curriculum and concerns over what politicians say is "critical race theory," and fears over rising inflation, interviews with voters and the latest polling suggest. Another issue, according to pollsters, strategists and politics watchers in the state, is the lack of major accomplishments that Evers can point to, because his agenda has been significantly limited by Republicans who control both chambers of the state Legislature.

Evers’ approval ratings, like those of Biden in the state, are on the decline.

Surrounding it all is the unfavorable political environment facing Democrats, who hold the White House and narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress. Midterm elections tend to be tough for the sitting president's political party, and Wisconsin proves no exception. The candidate of the sitting president’s political party has lost the last seven gubernatorial races in the state — all of which occurred in midterm years. Most recently, Evers eked out a victory against Walker, in 2018, amid a broader Democratic wave that year.

“There are a number of reasons that make him vulnerable. The crime issue here is significant. It’s really become something voters are talking about,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Milwaukee and current editor-in-chief of The Bulwark. “There’s also a problem that he’s not known for any signature achievement. He’s been there for your years, and I don’t think the average Wisconsinite can point to something he’s done.”

Unlike in other states, Wisconsin voters seem less concerned about pandemic restrictions. Evers could not institute a mask mandate, because of unified opposition from state Republicans and multiple court rulings against it.

Voter concerns, however, appear to center more on an uptick in violent crime than Covid restrictions. In interviews with 12 Wisconsin voters from across the state, crime emerged as the top concern. A Marquette University Law School poll released in November — the most recent public polling data available — showed that 69 percent of likely voters in the state believed crime had increased.

While crime has risen across the U.S. in 2020 and 2021, the issue is particularly salient in Wisconsin, where the violent crime rate in 2020 rose by 8.9 percent over the previous year (higher than the 5.6 percent national rise), according to FBI data. That included 271 homicides across the state, 190 of which were in Milwaukee County. Violent crime increased by an even greater margin in Racine County, where Keener lives, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016 and 2020, and that Walker carried by a slim margin in 2018.

FBI crime data for 2021 has not been finalized. But according to the Milwaukee Homicide Database, kept by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 197 homicides occurred in Milwaukee in 2021. In 2022, 33 have already occurred, compared with 18 at the same point in 2021, according to the database. If the pace continues, 2022 will mark the third consecutive year of record-high homicides in the city (many cities saw a large increase in homicides during the pandemic).

“Crime is a big issue here right now,” said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School poll, after an onslaught of headlines about shootings, and a Christmas parade attack in Waukesha in November that left five dead and dozens wounded.

The suspect in the attack had been released on $1,000 bail days before the parade. Evers has said he’d consider GOP-backed legislation to reform bail laws for repeat criminal offenders.

“It’s a strong issue for Republicans to run on, and voters are going to ask if Democrats, like Evers, have had a good answer to the attacks yet," Franklin said.

Franklin and Sykes, the conservative former radio show host, also said Evers’ decision to veto a bill last year that would have punished localities in Wisconsin for defunding their police departments makes him vulnerable on the issue, even though Evers never explicitly aligned with defund the police movements.

Republicans, including Rebecca Kleefisch, a former GOP lieutenant governor and the current front-runner for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, have hammered Evers on crime, saying he hasn’t done enough to hire more police officers. Kleefisch's campaign launch video in September led with and focused heavily on rising crime in Wisconsin and on Evers' response to the protests in Kenosha in 2020 that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (The video mentioned only the destruction wrought by "rioters" and not the fatal shooting during the protests by Kyle Rittenhouse of two men.) Kleefisch has attacked Evers' record on crime in numerous videos posted to Twitter and Facebook in recent weeks, and her campaign said it is currently running two digital ads on crime that attack Evers.

Evers campaign spokesman Sam Roecker, responding to questions on Evers’ record on crime, pointed to the governor’s announcement last year to invest $45 million toward making Wisconsin communities safer. The funds, which the state received from Biden’s pandemic relief American Rescue Plan Act, included $25 million for such violence prevention efforts as “statewide research initiatives and community-based solutions,’’ and $20 million to support victim services. 

That, too, has been a focal point of criticism from Republicans: Kleefisch has repeatedly attacked Evers for not having spent any funds from $45 million allocation of federal money to hire more police officers or fight crime “on our streets.”

Running on election protections

In 2018, Evers beat out Walker by fewer than 30,000 votes (Biden won the state in 2020 by fewer than 21,000 votes) — despite facing a vulnerable Republican incumbent governor and running what some strategists called a savvy campaign that emphasized problem solving and an agenda geared toward improving education and infrastructure — a low-key, state-focused approach that strategists have said appealed to voters in a purple state who had grown fatigued with the polarizing Walker.

Evers has largely governed on a centrist agenda — the product of finding common ground with an adversarial Republican Legislature — focused largely on passing budgets that boosted business growth, cut taxes for the middle class and improved education funding.

Other than those budgets, however, he has a thin record of accomplishments and a rising list of challenges that voters said they’re seriously concerned about, and that experts said have hurt his campaign.

“He doesn’t have a laundry list of legislative achievements, because of the Republican Legislature,” Franklin said.

Just 40 percent of likely Wisconsin voters said they planned to vote for Evers this fall, according to Franklin’s latest polling from November, compared with 53 percent who said they’d vote for someone else. His job approval in that poll fell to 45 percent (46 percent said they disapproved of the job he's doing). Forty-three percent of respondents approved of the job Biden is doing as president, the poll showed, while 53 percent said they disapproved.

“He’s a low-profile guy facing a very energized Republican base in an off year. The underlying dynamics are just bad for him,” said Sykes.

Strategists, pollsters and Wisconsin politics watchers, however, pointed to two actions that could help to boost Evers’ prospects.

The first would be to paint himself as a defender of democracy in the state by talking about Republican efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 vote for Biden, something Evers has begun to do. He has vetoed six bills that would have made it more difficult to cast a vote.

In Wisconsin, as in other states with closely watched governor's races, the stakes for Evers in his re-election fight are especially high. With two GOP-controlled branches of the state Legislature, a Republican governor would have the power to remake the state’s election laws. Indeed, one GOP gubernatorial candidate, election conspiracy theorist Tim Ramthun, has already made that issue the center of his campaign.

Ramthun has called for Wisconsin lawmakers to decertify Biden's 2020 win in the state as part of an effort that seeks to ultimately remove Biden from office (there is no basis in Wisconsin or federal law for Wisconsin lawmakers to do that). Echoing false claims by Trump, many state Republicans still dispute Biden's 2020 win in the state, despite the results having been confirmed by various judges, audits and independent reviews.

Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson, another GOP candidate, want to eliminate the bipartisan commission that runs elections in the state. Just this week, Kleefisch refused to say whether she would have certified the election Wisconsin results if she had been governor.

“That is one issue that boosts turnout for Democrats,” said Franklin, of Marquette.

The second would be to lean in hard to paint himself as a moderate.

“Neither Kleefisch or Nicholson are doing that here,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist in Milwaukee, referring to the two leading contenders for the GOP nomination. “When you have Republican candidates embracing extremist positions, it’s hard for them to capture the middle.”

Evers, nonetheless, will ultimately have to find better ways to talk about the issues hampering his campaign, such as crime and communicating his achievements, Chheda and others said. 

Not everyone blames Evers for the rise in crime, however.

Janet Mitchell, a retired teacher from Racine, said she’s not happy about rising crime but doesn’t believe Evers is at fault.

“I just see it as Republicans bringing it up so much because they’re playing politics. I don’t think it’d be any lower if we had a Republican governor,” said Mitchell, a Democrat.

But many other voters, including those who voted for Evers four years ago, think he needs to do more.

“Crime feels really important this year. I’m not sure he’s done enough. Although he handled the pandemic OK, I felt, I just really don’t know if he’s done enough to vote for him again," said Morgan Olsen, a graphic designer from outside Green Bay who voted for Evers in 2018.

“We’re really more on the Democratic side of things because we are just so against a lot of the Republican candidates here,” said Olsen. “Not really because we’re big Evers fans.”