HUDSON, Wis. – In ballot-battle-scarred Wisconsin, the governor’s race is shaping up as a contest not just between candidates, but between this state and Minnesota, next door.
This is Wisconsin’s third gubernatorial election in four years. Republican incumbent Scott Walker and Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke are locked in one of the closest and most closely watched races in the nation.
One of the things they’re watching is the gap between Wisconsin and Minnesota, two states that took very different paths in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
“There’s no reason that Minnesota should have a better growth rate in jobs, a lower unemployment rate; that they’ve gotten back all the jobs lost in the recession [or] that average incomes are $5,000 a year more,” said Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive and Wisconsin Commerce Secretary, as she stumped through La Crosse last week, just across the river from Minnesota. “You know what? There’s nothing that says we shouldn’t be beating the pants off Minnesota. We just need better leadership.”
Burke, deadlocked with Walker in the latest statewide poll, has hammered the incumbent for delivering less than half the 250,000 new private-sector jobs he pledged to create in his first term in office. Wisconsin, she notes frequently, has the slowest job growth in the Midwest.
Walker, who took his own campaign to the Minnesota border Monday for a campaign swing through Hudson with fellow GOP Gov. Chris Christie, blasted back. Wisconsin might be dead last in Midwest job growth since he took office, but he points to statistics showing that the state added new jobs faster this year than most of its neighbors, including Minnesota.
“Wisconsin created more private-sector jobs than Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio and Illinois,” Walker announced in one ad that began airing in August. “That means we rank third in the Midwest. Our opponent can try and mislead you and criticize the Wisconsin comeback. That doesn’t change the fact that we’re moving Wisconsin forward.”
Opposite ends of spectrum
Still, during his campaign swing with Christie on Monday, Walker acknowledged: This is going to be a tough election.”
On almost every political issue, Wisconsin went right while Minnesota went left. Wisconsin cut taxes and spending, dismantled public unions’ collective bargaining rights and passed a voter ID law that goes into effect at the polls this year. Minnesota hiked taxes on the rich and plowed $2 billion in new tax revenue back into the state budget, legalized gay marriage and medical marijuana, and is raising the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour.
For both parties, there’s a lot more hinging on the Wisconsin gubernatorial race than the political futures of Walker or Burke.
“Both the Democrats, the Republicans, the liberals and the conservatives see Walker’s race as one of the most important, if not the most important, gubernatorial races in the country,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. “It’s a nail-biter. If I were grabbing a bucket of popcorn on election night and waiting for the returns, Wisconsin is the state I’d be watching.”
Campaign donations are pouring into Wisconsin “in bucketloads,” he said, as both sides maneuver to turn Scott Walker into an object lesson. A Tea Party darling and top-tier Republican presidential prospect, his fate in this election will send a powerful message about how conservative policies and a conservative message will fare in more moderate states.
“A win for either side becomes a powerful jump on 2016,” Jacobs said. “For the Democrats, they think defeating Scott Walker demonstrates the failure of the arch-conservative wing of the Republican Party. For Republicans, but even more so on the very conservative side, they see it as confirmation that America has taken a right turn and that voters are willing to support it, even in a moderate state.”
Wisconsin’s airwaves are saturated with attack ads from the candidates and from outside interest groups — Burke fired a consultant after her jobs plan turned out to include sections seemingly lifted from similar proposals in other states. The Wisconsin Supreme Court may revive an investigation into possible criminal collaboration between Walker’s campaign and conservative groups that have pumped millions of dollars into state races. But the state is so politically polarized, the controversies are unlikely to sway either candidate’s base.
Instead, jobs and the economy could be the issues that persuade the handful of undecided independents who will swing the outcome of the election.
Now or four years ago?
According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Minnesota has higher per-capita income, a lower unemployment rate and a more educated workforce than Wisconsin does. Minnesota businesses added 6,100 jobs in August, while Wisconsin lost 4,300 private-sector jobs in the same month.
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