Whether the state swings to the right or left next Tuesday, whether the Democrats keep control or the power shifts to the Republicans, the next governor of Wisconsin will come from Milwaukee County.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett and Republican Scott Walker are both currently employed in Milwaukee – Barrett as mayor and Walker as county executive. This, along with the fact neither have held the governor position before, have transformed this year’s gubernatorial race into something unique.
For the first time in almost 30 years there is no incumbent running for the governor’s seat, and it is the first time since 1910 both candidates have come from the Milwaukee area. This open field in the race has impacted both candidate’s campaigns, says University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden.
“It makes the dynamics of the campaign a little different because without an incumbent it makes it difficult for voters to know who to reward if it’s going well or who to punish if its going badly,” Burden said.
It was generally accepted Barrett had the Democratic nomination locked down throughout the campaign season, as he faced little competition from Oconomowoc businessman Tim John.
The Republican nominee was not decided upon until the primary last month, however, after a heated battle between Walker and businessman and former Congressman Mark Neumann. Walker ended up garnering the nomination in a closer race than expected, securing 58 percent of the votes, with Neumann capturing 40 percent.
In the wake of the September primary, Walker and Barrett turned their attention toward each other, and each have used different tactics meant to discredit their opponent. A large part of Walker’s strategy has been equating Barrett with current Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, as Doyle has been met with very low approval ratings over the past year and is largely seen as a lame duck, Burden said.
Barrett, on the other hand, has come out on the offensive in television ads and recent debates, which may be a result of him being behind in the polls and trying to make up for lost ground, said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.
One aspect of this year’s gubernatorial campaign Burden found particularly unique was the relatively little interest paid to the candidates’ personal lives, which have always featured prominently in past elections. He mentioned both Walker and Barrett’s time in the state Legislature, Barrett’s period in the House and the fact Walker never graduated from college as things that have not garnered much scrutiny.
“The backgrounds of the candidates haven’t really gotten that much attention because everyone has been so focused on the economy and jobs,” Burden said. “If you were hiring someone for a job, you would want to know what their credentials are…if we’re hiring someone to be the leader of our state…it’s surprising to me that those things haven’t come up.”
The Milwaukee Factor
One of the most unique aspects of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race is that both candidates hail from the Milwaukee area, and will be bringing their experiences working in the county to the governor’s office.
Burden said he believes Barrett and Walker’s respective roles as mayor and county executive are the “perfect stepping stone” to the governorship position, and those experiences managing a large-scale operation will be helpful in running the state.
Heck agreed, and said both will bring unique qualities to the governor’s office, as Walker and Barrett have also both served in the state Legislature.
“I think the fortunate thing is that both candidates have the necessary background and qualifications to serve…each is going to be able to hit the ground running,” Heck said. “The only real question now is which candidate do [people] feel more comfortable with…who’s going to fix the problems that seem almost unsolvable.”
The Milwaukee vote has also become an issue in the campaign, as the city tends to vote democratic, but with Walker in the running, the outcome is still up in the air.
Barrett currently has a strong showing in Madison and Dane County, while Walker is faring better in the more rural parts of the state, Burden said. Because Walker has the advantage geographically, Barrett will need to capture the Milwaukee vote if he wants to win next Tuesday.
“There’s a myth that Democrats won’t win statewide unless they get 60 percent of Milwaukee County, and it seems to be true,” Burden said. “Normally the Democrats have to get that vote.”
According to a state Government Accountability Board report covering the period from July 1 to Aug. 30, Barrett had more than twice the amount of money on hand for his campaign than Walker.
This disparity in campaign cash could be attributed to Barrett’s early advantage of running virtually unopposed, as many Republican donors waited until after Walker had secured the nomination to start funneling money into his campaign, Burden said. This early advantage may have created a disadvantage for Barrett’s current campaign however, as many of his early supporters may be maxed out at this point in the election season.
Burden added this decrease in fundraising for Barrett may also be a reflection of his poor poll numbers, as many Democrats feel Barrett is a lost cause.
“[There is] less enthusiasm among Democrats; you don’t really want to spend money on a candidate you don’t [think will] win and its become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Burden said.
According to Heck, this year’s gubernatorial race is the most expensive race in state history, and he estimates spending will top $50 million by Nov. 2. Less than half of this amount has come from the actual candidates however, with outside groups spending more than $30 million in the course of the campaign.
“So many of these outside groups have weighed in that I’m afraid that the message is from these outside groups…those are the people that are trying to set the agenda,” Heck said. “There’s so much money with strings attached, it’s going to make it that much harder for the next governor to govern independently.”
Shift of Power
With Republican candidates poised to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and leading in many other races around the country, there has been much talk of a perceived public loss of faith in the Democratic leadership. Most polls show Walker with a comfortable lead on Barrett, a reflection of what many are terming the “enthusiasm gap” between Democrats and Republicans.
Burden said this “gap” does not necessarily mean the American public wants to cast aside Democrats, but that Republicans have put forth clearer solutions to many of the nation’s problems.
“It’s not that the public has embraced Republicans and rejected Democrats, they’re just looking for fresh faces with simple solutions for problems we’re in.” Burden said. “[Republicans] have a simpler message, we’re going to cut taxes and reduce the size of government and help the economy, and that message resonates.”
Walker has indeed built his campaign around the idea of small government, especially with his “brown bag” movement which pledges to cut government spending and create growth in the private sector. One of his main campaign promises has been to create 250,000 jobs by 2015.
Barrett’s campaign has also focused on economic growth and creating jobs through streamlining state agencies, however his campaign has also pledged further funding for certain educational and health care programs.
Heck said he sees this possible shift in political power as being an effect of the current climate of uncertainty in the country. Much of this frustration can be traced to the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was elected President with almost impossible expectations placed on him. When things in the country did not immediately improve, disillussionment set in.
“People are just scared and desperate and most people are just not political and look at life from month-to-month,” Heck said. “[Candidates] have to become like superman in the eyes of people to rise above the others.”
Heck said there is a lot at stake in the outcome of this race, as the next governor will face enormous problems and challenges. Whoever is elected will also have a profound effect on the future of the state, especially because both candidates have significantly different visions for what they hope to achieve.
“[Whoever is elected] will be presiding over the redistricting of Wisconsin, and whichever political party controls the redistricting process can control the political makeup of the state,” Heck said. “There’s a real difference in their governing philosophy and what they believe. Wisconsinites don’t have an excuse for not making a choice here…this is a real stark contrast.”