What sank Scott Walker? His ambition, his record, Tony Evers, and the Donald Trump backlash
In Gov. Scott Walker’s quest for the political pinnacle, his foes and friends alike now see the makings of his untimely defeat.
One of the most polarizing and consequential figures in Wisconsin political history, Walker’s showdowns with labor unions and subsequent re-elections made him, since 2011, the dominant figure in state government.
It also gave him national exposure, teeing up a once-promising bid for the ultimate prize: the presidency.
But in Tuesday’s election, that ill-fated run loomed large in his loss to his Democratic opponent -- now governor-elect -- Tony Evers.
Other factors included a national environment that aided Democrats, thanks to the national health care debate and liberal outrage at the man who chased Walker out of the 2016 campaign: Republican President Donald Trump.
Some cited unpopular Walker budgets that cut education funding, his Foxconn subsidy package, a revolt by his former Cabinet lieutenants and fatigue among his conservative volunteer base.
Meanwhile, Democrats found an unlikely David to slay Walker’s Goliath in Evers, an educator with no partisan background who peppered his speech with interjections such as “Holy Mackerel!” and “Jeepers!”
Former conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who recently has fallen from favor with some conservatives for his pushback to Trump, was a crucial Walker media ally for years in southeast Wisconsin, helping burnish his image as an unflinching conservative reformer.
Sykes said Walker’s 2015 White House bid was “incredibly consequential” to Tuesday’s outcome.
“I do think the real turning point was his decision to run for president,” Sykes said. “You did sense that his focus and the momentum he had as governor was dissipated.”
During the campaign, Evers seized on Walker’s presidential run in his call for new leadership. The best argument against a Walker third term, according to Evers’ campaign manager, Maggie Gau, was his record in his first two -- especially his presidential run.
“He put his political ambitions before the state of Wisconsin,” Gau said Friday in a wide-ranging interview. “And we continued to talk about that throughout the race.”
‘Nearly beat history’
Walker declined comment for this story.
His campaign spokesman, Brian Reisinger, contended Walker did well to keep the race close “in a tough year that put Republicans at a disadvantage out of the gate.”
“Scott Walker nearly beat history by garnering more votes than his 2014 re-election,” Reisinger said. “Overwhelming Madison turnout and the challenges of running when your party controls Washington proved too strong to overcome — but historic liberal turnout doesn’t wipe away the connection Wisconsin Republicans have with hard-working families.”
Walker did face at least two historical stumbling blocks in seeking a third term, with the only exception to both being former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Only Thompson, elected four times as governor, has won more than two terms to the job.
And between the two major parties, the one that does not control the White House has fared well in governor’s races. The last governor candidate to win while their party held the presidency was Thompson in 1990.
Trump presented Walker with a particular challenge. Polls show Trump’s favorability consistently has been underwater, at times by double digits, in Wisconsin, and few dispute the effect he has had in energizing Democrats.
Unlike some other Democratic candidates, Evers’ rhetoric didn’t often turn to explicitly bashing Trump. But Gau suggested the campaign didn’t need to.
“We embraced who Tony was,” Gau said. “We embraced somebody who has dedicated his life to helping kids. Somebody who is a kind person.
“That is a contrast. But were we running against Donald Trump? No. We were running against Scott Walker.”
‘The perfect foil’
Walker had to confront a problem after his presidential run: His approval rating among independent voters -- critical in a state like Wisconsin, where Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided -- tanked badly when he began the White House bid.
They steadily ticked back upward in the years after, but never quite returned to the roughly 50-percent approval he got before his presidential run, according to the Marquette Law School Poll.
In 2017 Walker unveiled a plan some of his allies declared a “home run” for his re-election bid: a $3 billion state subsidy to Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn to build a manufacturing and research campus near Racine.
The state’s economy already had grown under Walker, and Foxconn was supposed to be the fulfillment of his pitch when he first ran for office in 2010: to bring job growth to a new level.
But in the short term, the politics of the deal didn’t work out as planned. Most Marquette Law School polls showed Wisconsinites didn’t think the deal would return what the state invested in it.
“In out-state Wisconsin, I think the question from a lot of voters was ‘What about us?’” Gau said. “I don’t think it was what the governor thought it was going to be.”
Walker, Evers contended, had plenty of other failings in his record. The campaign focused on Walker’s cuts to school funding, opposition to former President Barack Obama’s federal health care law and the poor condition of Wisconsin’s roads.
Evers’ campaign tied those issues to a common theme -- Walker’s failed presidential run -- by arguing the governor’s handling of them was motivated by a desire to impress national conservatives and fuel his ambitions.
“I’m going to Madison to solve problems,” Evers told a crowd at Beloit College on the eve of the election. “I’m not going to Madison to go someplace else.”
Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Evers was “in some ways the perfect foil for Scott Walker.”
Evers “came across in a way that was so much less political than what we’ve experienced the last eight years,” Hintz said.
‘We’re in trouble’
For Thompson, who backed Walker during the campaign, state Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet’s 2017 election win was the canary in the coal mine.
Dallet became the first candidate backed by liberals to win an open seat on the state’s high court in 23 years, thanks in part to an eye-popping 81 percent vote share in Dane County.
“Nobody gets 81 percent of the vote -- nobody,” Thompson said. “I told anybody that would listen to me, I said ‘We’re in trouble.’”
In this election Walker continued to enjoy, and in some places build on, the strong GOP support in rural areas that he previously earned and Trump expanded in 2016.
But record turnout for a midterm election, including historic vote totals for Democrats in the state’s two biggest urban areas, proved Thompson correct.
Dane County netted Evers more than 150,000 votes in an election he won by fewer than 31,000 votes. The Dane County margin for Evers increased by nearly 50,000 votes, or nearly 50 percent, compared to the margin for the Democratic challenger to Walker in 2014, Mary Burke.
Milwaukee County also came up big for Evers, netting him nearly 140,000 votes, a jump of nearly 40,000 from 2014.
Thompson saw a different dynamic at play in the so-called “WOW” counties, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, of suburban Milwaukee -- which for decades have been the Wisconsin GOP’s answer to the cities of Madison and Milwaukee.
Those counties delivered for Walker again, but not by margins that compare to 2014.
In Thompson’s view, “the Trump factor” was part of that. The counties are home to the sort of educated suburbanites who have remained cool to Trump, polls show.
From 2014 to 2018, Walker’s vote totals in the WOW counties combined held roughly even. But strong Democratic turnout helped Evers improve markedly on Burke’s vote totals there, netting him nearly 38,000 more votes.
The well-oiled Republican grassroots machine in those counties helped propel Walker to three straight victories in 2010, the 2012 recall and 2014. By this election, fatigue had set in, Thompson said.
“These people had to go to the wall three times in four years. They were tired,” he said.
What’s next for Walker?
Another narrative dogged Walker in the closing months of the campaign: four of his former Cabinet secretaries spoke out publicly against him.
Three of them -- former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall, former Financial Institutions Secretary Peter Bildsten and former Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO Paul Jadin -- endorsed Evers.
Jadin, the former mayor of Green Bay, said he believed Walker created a ceiling for his support after Act 10, his controversial 2011 measure to curb collective bargaining for public employees.
From there, in Jadin’s view, it was a question of solidifying or eroding what support Walker still had.
“His last two budgets and the discord within his own party that followed precipitated that erosion, and the Democrats merely needed to establish a viable alternative,” Jadin said. “Tony Evers was that alternative and more.”
Walker will leave office in January and hasn’t signaled what’s next. At age 51, there’s plenty of time for whatever he chooses.
Sykes, having watched Walker’s ascent and now his biggest setback, said he’s not sure Walker’s political career is done.
“I honestly have no idea what he’s going to do,” Sykes said. “The thing about Walker is, there’s always something else.”
State editor Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.