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Recall Survivor Scott Walker Faces Toughest Challenge Yet in November

The Republican governor of Wisconsin survived a recall election two years ago, but recent ethics scandals and attacks on unions may have wrecked his chances for a second term.

Perhaps no governor has divided his state as deeply as Scott Walker. If anything, Wisconsin seems to have greater disagreement about the Republican governor's performance than it did in 2012, when Walker survived a recall election.

Walker's approval rating among Wisconsin Republicans is above 90 percent, while among Democrats it's in the single digits. "Walker, in his four years, has managed to get everyone in Wisconsin to choose sides," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

Practically everyone has made up his mind, with only a handful of Democrats willing to support the governor and similarly small numbers of Republicans ready to vote for Mary Burke, the Democratic challenger -- less than 5 percent in each case, according to a Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday.

"There's not a more faithful Republican base in the country than the folks who support Walker in Wisconsin," Heck said.

The Marquette poll showed Walker and Burke tied, at 47 percent each, among likely voters. The same poll late last month had shown Walker up by 5 points. Voter opinion on other questions -- such as whether the state was on the right track and whether Wisconsin was lagging behind other states in job creation -- had also moved slightly in ways that were bad for the governor. He also slipped a bit among independents.

Walker argues that his bold reforms -- ending collective bargaining for most public employees and helping to erase a budget deficit without tax increases -- should be rewarded with a second term. He received good news on Thursday, when the last jobs report before the election showed that unemployment had dropped to 5.5 percent in September -- the lowest rate in six years.

Businesses created a total of 111,000 jobs during Walker's time as governor. "Just take a look at the results of the last four years and you'd think Gov. Walker would be on his way to a comfortable win, frankly," said GOP consultant Mark Graul.

Democrats view Walker's record quite differently. Not only would unions love to take their revenge on him, but other Democrats have been concerned about his environmental record and the ethics and fundraising scandals that have led to convictions of multiple Walker associates.

Burke is also bragging that she can do more to move the economy. She is a former state commerce secretary and her father started Trek, a well-regarded bicycle company started in a barn in Waterloo, Wis.

The state has fallen far short of the 250,000 jobs Walker had promised would be created by the end of his term. "He came out and said all the cabinet secretaries should have '250,000 jobs' tattooed on their foreheads," said Jim Smith, a Democratic consultant in Madison. "They're not even halfway there."

Mary Burke at a campaign stop. (AP/Andy Manis)

Both Republican and Democratic observers believe that Burke presents Walker with a more challenging opponent than Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who ran against the governor in both 2010 and 2012. She does not carry the baggage that being associated with that city can offer in other parts of the state. Her lack of much of a political record also makes her a harder target, Graul said.

Walker did himself no favors on Tuesday when he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board that he doesn't think the minimum wage "serves a purpose." Burke has called for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Polls indicate most voters support an increase.

Walker is well funded. "Over the next three weeks, I'm going to see bigger (ad) buys, see the messages become much tougher," said Scott Becher, a longtime GOP consultant at Red Shoes PR in Appleton.

Becher said that Walker's history shows he always finds a way to pull out a win. But Wisconsin is arguably the most polarized state in the country. Voters in Madison and Milwaukee will overwhelmingly support Burke, while the Milwaukee suburbs and most of the rest of the state will favor Walker.

There are few voters left in the state open to persuasion. The Marquette poll indicates that 80 percent or more of all types of voters -- Republican, Democratic and independent -- say they are "certain" to vote this fall.

On October 9, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the state's voter identification law from taking effect with this election, which should have the effect of making turnout efforts among Democratic constituencies a bit easier.

"If the governor loses, it will be 51 to 49 percent," Becher said. "If the governor wins, it will be 51 to 49 percent."

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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