With only a week before Wisconsin's nationally historic recall election, Gov. Scott Walker has stormed into the home stretch by opening a significant, if not commanding, lead over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, but Barrett is chasing aggressively, and seasoned political experts on both sides caution against counting him out.
In many ways, it has all been down hill for Barrett since his primary victory over former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk on May 8. Barrett sailed past her by a wide margin, including a double-whammy 2-1 victory in Dane County, and could have reasonably expected a big bounce in the polls.
It never happened.
It never happened because Gov. Scott Walker rolled up an amazing 626,000-plus votes in an uncontested GOP primary, more votes than any candidate in either party had received in a gubernatorial primary in 60 years. He effectively stole the spotlight.
Then a slew of negative polls made the post-primary campaign trail even worse. No poll - there were four major ones - had Barrett any closer than four points, and one put him nine points behind.
Worse than the horse race numbers were those showing approval ratings and enthusiasm. In an early May Marquette Law School poll, Walker's approval ratings had moved into positive territory at 50 percent to 46 percent, while Walker's advertising blitz effectively drove up Barrett's negative ratings. In fact, 45 percent gave Barrett an unfavorable rating, while only 37 percent gave him a favorable one.
On the enthusiasm side, 91 percent of Republicans said they were certain to vote in the recall, while only 83 percent of Democrats and independents said they were certain to vote. Add to that Democrats' concerns about getting college students to vote absentee after school had ended and they had headed home, and the potential turnout gap was large.
But what about the jobs?
Meanwhile, the polls showed the public favoring the governor's collective bargaining reforms. The Marquette poll showed 50 percent preferring to keep the current collective bargaining law in place, while just 43 percent wanted to return to the way it was before Walker.
For his part, Barrett questioned the poll's accuracy, saying it has been off the mark in previous contests. But that was just the beginning of his troubles.
Following that were internal, and then public, Democratic squabbles. As Greg Sargent with the Washington Post reported, the Democratic National Committee denied state Democratic Party appeals to infuse the state with recall money. Wisconsin Democrats had asked the national outfit to pony up $500,000, Sargent reported; they did not, and, according to the blog, "top Wisconsin Democrats are furious."
Barrett, of course, was trying to talk jobs, specifically, the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics reports showing continual job losses in the state. Indeed, according to those reports, Wisconsin had the worst record in the nation over the past year. The numbers were taken by a monthly survey of about 3.5 percent of the state's businesses.
It is not clear whether that line of attack would have gained traction in a recall election in which the governor had only 19 months to implement his agenda. But, in any case, Walker made the point moot, releasing quarterly data - actual numbers from nearly 160,000 businesses - showing that the state had actually gained more than 23,000 jobs under his watch.
Walker quickly touted the numbers in a new TV ad - he has a substantial financial advantage ,too - and, what's more, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent. At the very least, Walker had muddied the jobs-numbers waters.
Meanwhile, Barrett rather than Walker was being put on the defensive. Walker turned the economy against the Milwaukee mayor, charging that, under Barrett, the city had become one of the 10 most impoverished cities in the nation, while unemployment had jumped by 27 percent.
Indeed, the Walker camp was laying the blame for a continuing overall sluggish economic performance statewide on Milwaukee, and on Barrett's shoulders, or, as Friends of Scott Walker called it, his "failed leadership."
All the while social media networks were lighting up over reports that Barrett had awarded a no-bid contract to campaign contributors. The mayor did receive a reprieve because major news outlets mostly ignored the story, and the media also largely ignored his missteps in missing law enforcement ceremonial events to honor fallen police officers, during one of which he met with union organizers, according to WTMJ.
To top a bad week off, the state's largest newspaper - and Barrett's hometown newspaper, to boot - endorsed the sitting governor, saying there was not enough reason to justify his removal in a recall.
That prompted a tirade from Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate, who compared the paper's support of Walker to the old Milwaukee Sentinel's support of Sen. Joe McCarthy.
"It saddens, but does not surprise, that the state's largest newspaper would continue to support the most divisive, and possibly most corrupt, governor in Wisconsin history," Tate said. "The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has supported Scott Walker in its editorial and news pages for years, has seriously underplayed the scandals of his various administrations, has treated the historic recall movement with small-minded contempt and will, therefore be judged harshly if remembered at all, in Wisconsin's history. One need only read the Milwaukee Sentinel editorials against the civil rights movement and for Joe McCarthy to remember how silly and reactionary a news organization can look in the hindsight of the ages."
With only two weeks left, nerves were clearly frayed, and Democrats began to anonymously point fingers. National Democrats told the Wall Street Journal they had forewarned Wisconsin Democrats and unions the recall was a "bad, bad, bad" idea.
And yet, amazing as it would seem with that much bad news, with a week left, Barrett is very much in the race.
It hasn't all been bad, of course. Barrett made one very smart move in his campaign and that was to campaign not as Tom Barrett but as "I'm not Scott Walker." To be sure, Tom Barrett lost in November 2010 and would likely lose again, but the same can't be said for "I'm Not Scott Walker."
That's because in Wisconsin there are few undecided voters; it's an extraordinarily divided state. With Walker, it's love him or hate him.
Most people have made up their minds. With nearly half the state hating him, in the political sense, a candidate can make a "I'm not the other guy" message work. It has kept him in the race, even if it puts him in an inferior position heading down the stretch.
As Brian Sikma of the conservative media watchdog group Media Trackers told Politico, that makes it a voter turnout game - a game the Democrats, with organized and ready union workers, could still win.
"This is still a turnout battle, so it is a mistake to write off the outcome as certain one way or the other," Sikma told Politico.
Other observers are concerned, too, that Walker could peak. Two weeks, or even 10 days, is an eternity in a political campaign, and many sure winners two weeks out have ended up losing. One need only to look to Nebraska this month to see the latest example, when state Sen. Deb Fischer won the Republican nomination in Nebraska's Senate race.
Just two weeks earlier, attorney general Jon Bruning had been touted as the heavy favorite.
Such a scenario is less likely in Wisconsin with so few undecided voters. But it is a reminder of why elections are actually held, just like sports games are actually played. Anything can happen - a heavy windstorm in Waukesha keeping voters home, or a flood in Milwaukee washing away Democratic hopes.
Indeed, Democrats and their liberal allies remain optimistic.
Last week We Are Wisconsin, a liberal group supporting Barrett, called the race a dead heat. None of the earlier polls showing Barrett trailing accounted for such factors as the statewide coverage of the John Doe probe surrounding Walker's former aides or the new infusion labor cash helping to give Barrett ad parity with Walker, the group asserted.
"The bottom line is simple: Today marks the exact halfway point of the general election between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett, and this race remains a dead heat," the group stated. "It will remain a dead heat between now and Election Day. And as much as Scott Walker's operatives or the DC pundit class want to declare this race over, nothing could be further from the truth."
That may be wishful thinking. A new poll by the same group showed Walker leading 50 percent to 47 percent. The poll was conducted May 19 to 21 by the Democratic firm Greenberg, Quinlan & Rosner.
But, as the Weekly Standard observed, that was actually good news for Walker. The firm's last poll in March showed Walker trailing, and so, the magazine asserted, even the Democrats acknowledged the race was not trending their way.
Maybe or maybe not. But both bases are energized, and, however it turns out, this election is historic, it will be close, and it will be exciting.
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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