By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — And now for our regularly scheduled election …
The mid-term year ahead should not want for intriguing political story lines, but the main event in Wisconsin in 2014 is the re-election bid of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, political pundits agree.
If it seems like déjà vu, well, the feeling is understandable.
“Of course, this is the third election contest for Governor Walker in four years. He’s had a lot of practice at it by now,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.
The only difference, at least as it stands, is Walker’s opponent.
Walker beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, in the 2010 election, only to be recalled in 2012, when he defeated Barrett in the rematch.
As 2014 dawns, the incumbent’s challenger this time around is Madison school board member and liberal millionaire Mary Burke. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, has kicked around the idea of jumping into the race, but Burke, who served as Commerce Department secretary under former Gov. Jim Doyle, is seen as the Democratic Party establishment’s anointed candidate.
Voters have had more than the usual opportunities to make judgments about Walker, and in a politically divided state the polling story line is how consistent the numbers have been.
In 14 straight polls over the past two years, Franklin said, the governor’s approval rating has averaged 49.9 percent, the same as President Obama over that period.
“We simply have not seen any sign of volatility in voters’ opinions,” Franklin said.
The most recent Marquette poll, released late October, showed Walker with a 2 percentage point lead, 47 percent to 45 percent, over Burke, within the 3 percentage point margin of error. But voters know who Walker is; they have yet to get to know Burke. The Democrat hasn’t helped matters much, offering vague answers at best about her positions on key policy matters.
John McAdams, political science professor at Marquette, said Democrats have a “perfectly plausible candidate” in Burke, who brings the weight of her personal fortune to the race.
The 2014 contest, McAdams said, will continue to highlight the Badger State divide.
“I would say Walker is the favorite, but who knows what happens between now and then,” the pundit said.
Referendum on 2010
The race is part of a bigger picture politically, a referendum nationally on the performance of the Republican governors elected in the 2010 GOP landslide, Franklin said.
The Grand Old Party will have 22 seats to defend, Democrats just 14.
“Four years later, how does each of these states feel about the policy and direction they chose in 2010,” Franklin said. “Except for (Wisconsin), this will be their first chance to render a verdict.”
The Cook Political Report rates six races “solid” for incumbent Democrats, compared to 11 for incumbent Republicans. The election handicapper rates as “likely” that six Republican governors will hold their seats, including Walker, while counting four Democrats in that category.
Cook considers four races involving Republican incumbents to be “toss ups,” two involving Democrats – including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
Sixth Year Slump?
The political tea leaves read a tough year for Democrats in Wisconsin’s legislative races, and at the national level, according to Joe Heim, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“Control of Congress is going to be up for grabs,” he said.
History is on the side of Republicans. The sixth year of a presidency generally is a losing year for the incumbent party, and Heim sees no reason to believe that will change.
It’s the mid-term quotient in general. Since the 1860s, there have been but four midterm elections in which the incumbent party gained seats in Congress – most recently in 1998, amid a booming economy and presidential scandal, and 2002, a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. You’d have to go back to 1934 to find the last time a sitting president’s party scored gains.
“I think history does matter here,” Franklin said. “Purely from a historical perspective, I think there are long odds that Democrats will pick up seats at all, let alone pick up enough to take over the House of Representatives.”
Obama’s polling numbers, at 43 percent in late December, matched the worst of his presidency.
The Washington Post-ABC poll puts the president’s approval rating on the economy at 42 percent, and his handling of the implementation of the health-care law that colloquially bears his name at 34 percent.
It’s hard to have much hope of big gains with numbers like that, but, as Heim notes, a month can be a lifetime in politics. If that’s the case, the midterm elections are several lifetimes away.
But Obamacare, for better or worse, will have much to say about who holds the reins of power by the end of 2014.
“If we continue to get a flurry of stories about problems with Obamacare, that really will say 2014 is going to be a good year for Republicans,” McAdams said.
The campaigning in Wisconsin will be built in large part on one prevailing theme: Jobs.
Franklin says you don’t have to have a functioning crystal ball to know that there will be a tremendous amount of arguments and spin throughout the year on the topic of job creation. Democrats will train in on Walker’s 2010 election pledge that Wisconsin would create 250,000 jobs. Less than a year out, the state has made progress but it will take some heavy lifting to hit the mark.
Will voters give Walker a break if the numbers come up short? Franklin said it all comes back to the current political divide.
“The state is sufficiently divided between Democrats and Republicans right now, and both have a point of view on what those numbers mean,” the pollster said. “I doubt Republicans will abandon the governor if he is shy of that number or Democrats will be voting for him if he hits it.”
Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]