The Decline of Scott Walker and its Expected Effect on the Upcoming Elections

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Source: Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With the 2018 midterms fast approaching, all eyes are on the gubernatorial race in Wisconsin. The two candidates running for office are Republican incumbent Scott Walker, famous for winning his recall election in 2012, and Democrat Tony Evers, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. After the state’s primary this past August, the Marquette Law School Poll showed Evers and Walker neck-and-neck. However, as of late September, Evers is leading Walker by five percentage points. Ever since then, coverage of the election strongly suggests that Evers will  triumph over Walker. This election is critical, not only because a Democrat may take over the governor’s seat, but also because of the potential that Walker, a polarizing state figure, may lose his seat.

Walker’s contentious history in office began with a series of reforms. Only a few short weeks after his inauguration in January 2011, Walker proposed Wisconsin Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill. The bill was intended to address the $3.6 billion budget deficiency. To do this, Act 10 mandated state employees pay 5.8% of their salaries to cover pension costs, doubled the price of health insurance premiums, and removed collective bargaining rights. Labor unions, public teachers and employees erupted into a state-wide protest, with teachers leaving the classroom to defend their bargaining ability. This bill, signed into law March 2011, led to his eventual recall election in 2012. However, due to the strong support of Republicans, Tea Party supporters, and conservatives, Walker prevailed in his recall election, and won by an even larger margin than he had when he was first elected into office. Scott Walker became the first U.S governor in the nation’s history to emerge victorious from a recall election, reflecting the polarizing relationship he shared with constituents.

Large local local field operations and anti-Washington rhetoric propelled the Republican governor’s winning streak and allowed him to defeat Democratic candidate Mary Burke in 2014. The national recognition Walker received in 2012 and his 2014 re-election initially pushed the governor to announce his campaign for president in 2015. However, low polling and a decline in funds pushed Walker to officially suspend his presidential bid after 70 days of campaigning.  

Despite Walker’s unconventional history in office and large disapproval rating, he is running for a third term as governor in 2018. However, his support is waning. A 2018 national online poll by Morning Consult found Walker holding a disapproval rating of 50% among Wisconsinites, placing him in the top 10 least popular governors in America.

Walker’s decline in popularity is not surprising. His past political undertakings, association with Trump and the state’s swinging identity weaken his chances of winning the upcoming elections. He also failed to fully address the state’s crumbling infrastructure, neglected  special elections, gave tax breaks to out-of-country corporations, and curtailed public education funding. Regardless of Walker’s successful campaigns in previous elections, this year’s election might proveto be an uphill battle for the conservative governor.

Walker’s impending decline owes a lot to his unsuccessful 2016 bid for presidency. Both conservative and liberal Wisconsinites witnessed Walker’s short-lived presidential campaign, that shed negative light on both himself and his state. Expected to be a frontrunner in the Iowa caucuses, Walker’s overconfidence, lack of knowledge on foreign policy, and unstable positions on citizenship and immigration led to his plummet in the polls, and ultimately resulted in less than one percentage point of support after the second Republican primary debate, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Walker, accustomed to being the hard conservative in a relatively liberal state, was suddenly put up against Republicans much farther to the right than him. At home, he had gained the reputation for being a crusading, conservative reformer. But on the national stage, he was just another Republican politician. Regardless of Walker’s previous terms as governor, state legislator, and county executive, he attempted to disassociate himself from the Washington establishment by claiming he had to go up against his own party to push reform through. In all, Walker’s arrogance became nationally apparent, and Wisconsinites were not proud of it. His supporters abandoned him, and both conservative and liberals were embarrassed by his lack of composure, with the Journal Sentinel reporting Walker’s approval rating hitting an all-time low of 37% among Wisconsin residents. Walker’s 70-day run for the presidency ultimately revealed a shortcoming to his constituents and hindered respect among some supporters.

After an unfavorable bid for the presidency, Walker aligned himself with Trump by endorsing the president; however, Walker’s association with Trump is a cause of concern for his popularity this election cycle. While Trump won Wisconsin’s vote in 2016, Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel imports and the consequential eruption of trade wars have put Wisconsin farmers and businesses, some of whom were Walker and Trump supporters, at risk. Retaliatory tariffs have been placed on the state’s paper, dairy products, cranberries, ginseng, and motorcycles. Harley-Davidson, a nationally recognized American motorcycle manufacturer located in Milwaukee, even outsourced some of its production to overcome the estimated cost of over $2,000 per bike from retaliatory tariffs. The U.S Chamber of Commerce estimates $1 billion of Wisconsin exports are in jeopardy as a result of Trump-induced trade wars.

Although Walker recognizes the economic harm this causes to Wisconsinites, and has pushed  Trump to “reconsider” the tariffs, he still continues to demonstrate his closeness with the president. Even as President Trump’s approval in the state sagged down to 36%, he invited Trump to come campaign with him in a political move to shore up support amongst the president’s supporters. Nonetheless, this move could backfire on Walker as the Trump administration’s trade war continues to inflict pain on Wisconsin workers and Walker supporters.  In tying his campaign so close to President Trump, Walker could have inadvertently set himself up to blame for Wisconsin’s economic suffering, and caused his constituent approval to decline.

This leads to a factor of Walker’s deteriorating popularity that is out of his control: Wisconsin’s swinging political identity. Although perceived nationally as a left-leaning state, Wisconsin is internally quite conflicted. Since 1988, the state was safely Democratic in presidential elections—that is, until 2016. Most other political seats in the state though have not been so clearly safe for one party over the other. Walker himself was preceded by a two-term Democratic governor, who had been preceded by two Republicans. The state’s current U.S Senators, Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson, could not be further apart on the ideological spectrum. Part of the reason Walker has lost momentum is that Wisconsin’s political pendulum is swinging back towards the Democrats.

In contrast, issues that have certainly been in Walker’s control during his time in office--infrastructure, the conduction of special elections, Foxconn, and education— are each coming back to haunt him this election cycle. One way in which Walker has lost the support of constituents is through his neglect of Wisconsin’s infrastructure. Refusing to raise vehicle fees or gas taxes to pay for state roads, Walker has chosen instead to continuously borrow money and delay transportation projects. According to PolitiFact, Wisconsin’s amount of debt payments for road work has doubled during Walker’s time in office. The further lack of investment by Walker is exemplified by the U.S News 2017 Best State Ranking report which placed Wisconsin’s road quality at #49 and at #41 for overall transportation. Similar results were presented by the American Society of Civil Engineers, reporting over 1,200 bridges in the state as being structurally deficient and 27% of public roads in poor condition. Walker’s shortage of investment in highways, airports, and public transportation has created an unsafe mess. In a state that experiences all four seasons of rain, sun, sleet, and snow, infrastructure is paramount to people’s everyday lives and experiences. Walker’s oversight of proper road repairs and maintenance has not only led to crumbling infrastructure in the state, but crumbling popularity among constituents.

Another critical moment leading to Walker’s decline occurred earlier in 2018, when Wisconsin citizens observed Walker’s attempts to obstruct a mandatory special election. At the end of 2017, two Republican state legislators had  resigned to join Walker’s administration. State statute requires the seats be filled as quickly as possible, but Walker refused to order special elections and claimed they were a waste of taxpayer dollars. It was not until after a three-month delay, lawsuit, and rulings by three judges did Walker agree to comply with state law. There is little to no precedent for constituents needing to sue their governor to hold a special election, according to WisContext. It is unclear whether this attempt to obstruct the mandatory special elections will directly influence voters this upcoming election, nevertheless, it is not likely to strengthenWalker’s support among his constituents.  

Walker’s latest project, Foxconn, also supported by Trump, has further unsettled both Republicans and Democrats in the state this past year. Foxconn, a Taiwanese manufacturing company that produces Apple products and works with Amazon, agreed to build its North American headquarters in Wisconsin after Walker and the Republican state legislature provided the company with a $3 billion tax break incentive. While some are optimistic by the long-term economic prospects the manufacturing business is said to bring, a much larger number of citizens disapprove of Foxconn. A Marquette University Law School poll released mid-June reported 46% of Wisconsinites did not approve of Foxconn, compared to the 40% who said they supported it. Even the Badger Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, published an article written by an economics professor urging Wisconsinites to be wary of the economic implications of the Foxconn deal. Walker wholeheartedly supports Foxconn and believes it will create thousands of jobs and economic growth in Wisconsin, however, constitutions are dubious of the benefits Foxconn is supposed to bring.  

Waller’s decisions affecting education are perhaps the greatest contribution to his decreasing popularity. With Walker’s initial enactment of Act 10, public school teachers’ wages dropped and benefits declined. This difference for school teachers in the state ultimately had damaging consequences in the classroom. A 2017 study by the nonpartisan policy institute, Center for American Progress, noted an increased number of teachers exiting the profession, a creation of shortages, and a resulting decrease in standardized test scores around the state. Additionally, Walker curtailed $800 million in funding for public schools, one of the greatest cuts in education nationally, forcing state universities to cut humanities programs and merge colleges and universities. His decision to not invest in schools has caused rage among both Republican and Democrat Wisconsinites. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, residents across the state would rather an increase in public school funding to a reduction in property taxes. An August 2018 poll by Marquette Law School found nearly half of Wisconsin residents listed K-12 education among the two most important issues the state faces.

Walker has tried to regain lost ground with regards to education. Recently, he increased his spending for schools, and in the launch of a campaign this past summer, he describes himself as an “education governor.” However, the amount Walker is spending on education now continues to remain lower than what it was prior to his taking office in 2009. Walker’s history with education in the state has caused for uncertainty among constituents. Due to the pervasive effect education has on both Republican and Democratic voters, Walker’s chances for re-election are at risk.

With the spotlight focused on education this election, Tony Evers’ long history of working and advocating for Wisconsin’s education system makes him a worthy challenger against Walker. Evers, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction since 2009, has worked at every level of leadership in the education sector from teacher to school district administrator to deputy state superintendent to his current position overseeing Wisconsin’s K-12 education. Wisconsinites are looking for a governor who will prioritize and invest in schools, making Evers an extremely viable candidate this election cycle.

Walker was more than lucky in his first three elections: he had support and he mobilized voters. But, as Walker’s time in office continues and the implications of his work become apparent and real, the possibility of an end to the Walker era becomes an increasingly legitimate thought.

Kristen Akey