Politics & Policy

Wisconsin’s Dilettante

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Is gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke ready to settle on a career?

The daughter of Trek Bicycle founder Richard Burke, the woman gunning for Scott Walker’s job, is the scion of a prominent Wisconsin family who’s had the wealth to flit from one career to another.

In an election being litigated primarily on economic issues, Mary Burke has touted her business experience. But it’s the sort of business experience only an heiress could afford: a couple of years spent toiling at a failed start-up company and two stints working for her father. Between her two tours at Trek, Burke spent a couple of years “as a snowboard bum in Colorado.” (That’d be from the Harvard Business School alumni bulletin, not her campaign website.) At Trek, she ran the company’s European division, and has said she increased international sales by a whopping $47 million, but the company denied PolitiFact’s request to verify the number.

The private sector, it turns out, wasn’t really for her. “While I have the business background, I really — how should I say this? — I prefer the work in the public sector,” Burke told Politico in an interview.

By her mid 40s, she’d left to become a philanthropist and told Democratic governor Jim Doyle’s political team when it expressed interest in bringing her aboard — she was eventually appointed to run the state’s Department of Commerce — that she wasn’t sure she wanted to “reenter the full-time work force.” The only elected position Burke has ever held is a seat on the Madison school board. Now, she wants to become governor.

Burke has cited her Harvard MBA and her business savvy as evidence that she has the know-how to revitalize Wisconsin’s economy. So it says something about her candidacy that large portions of her jobs plan — and of several other plans she has released, on subjects such as entrepreneurship, small-business development, and public-private partnerships, where one might expect her to bring her experience to bear — were lifted word for word from those of several other (mostly failed) gubernatorial candidates.

Burke blamed a Harvard-educated consultant for the incident, and he was promptly fired, but she stood by her borrowed plans, telling reporters that Wisconsin need not “reinvent the wheel.” Burke is offering Wisconsin voters public policy recycled by a political consultant — policy rejected by voters in Virginia and Indiana, to boot.

But the race is tight, and Burke’s latest flirtation with a serious career has given her a real shot to unseat one of the GOP’s top presidential contenders. The most recent Marquette University poll has her tied with Walker, 46 all. How did that happen?

That the race is so close is a testament both to Wisconsin’s political polarization and to the fact that, though it has at times looked purple, it remains a blue state. Walker, like his colleagues Sam Brownback, John Kasich, Rick Snyder, and Susana Martínez, among others, was elected in the GOP wave of 2010. Democratic majorities in the Wisconsin state assembly and the state senate were wiped out that year, too, but 2010 proved to be a political outlier.

In 2012, former Republican governor Tommy Thompson, one of the most popular political figures in state history, lost a race for an open Senate to his Democratic opponent, Tammy Baldwin, and President Obama carried Wisconsin by seven points despite Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan’s presence on the Republican ticket.

In the absence of a major Republican wave this year, a closer race was to be expected. The Marquette poll shows that just 5 percent of voters say they’re undecided. Like Governor Rick Scott in Florida, who is also locked in a tight race with an unattractive opponent, Walker is a known quantity and most voters have an opinion about him.

“The pool of undecided voters is just so small, I can’t even tell you if there’s any other state even comparable,” says one GOP strategist working on the race. “From now until the end, the race will stay tight.”

Walker rose to national prominence when he succeeded in getting legislation passed to curb the collective-bargaining rights of the state’s public-sector unions, and he caught the attention of top-dollar Republican donors when he beat back a union-led effort to recall his election. As throngs of left-wing protesters rushed the state capitol, he looked like the adult in the room, and he won the recall election by a greater margin than he was elected with in 2010.

Despite that accomplishment, he now faces the prospect of defeat, and the premature end to a presumptive presidential campaign.

“He’s in a dogfight, he has to win, period, and clearly the more he wins by the more his name is going to be touted after the midterm elections as somebody who is a viable candidate nationally,” says GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. A source close to top Republican donors says the governor is “raising money like crazy,” describing the effort as “all hands on deck.”

In an election that has centered on the performance of the state’s economy, Walker’s record has been scrutinized. There are things to boast about: Since Walker took office in January of 2011, unemployment has fallen to 5.6 percent from 7.6 percent. It’s half a percentage point below the national average.

But one of the central promises Walker made on the campaign trail in 2010, to usher in the creation of 250,000 private-sector jobs, has come back to haunt him. Even though the state has seen the creation of more than 100,000 jobs on his watch, the unmet campaign promise looms over him, and Burke is leveraging it in her ads. One Wisconsin Republican likened it to the “read my lips” moment that sealed George H. W. Bush’s fate in the 1992 presidential election.

It’s not just victory that matters for Walker, but the margin of victory. In modern times, all of the governors who have gone on to win the nomination of a major party have not been reelected narrowly but have galloped to victory. “Obviously, he’d like to win by more than five points,” Republican strategist O’Connell says.

George W. Bush was reelected in Texas in 1998 with a record 69 percent of the vote; Bill Clinton defeated Frank White in 1986 by a 25-point margin; Ronald Reagan bested Jesse Unruh by nine points when he ran for reelection in 1970; and Jimmy Carter, who served only one term as governor before he was nominated for president, was elected in 1970 by a 19-point spread.

Perhaps the closest parallel to Walker is Michael Dukakis, the Democrats’ 1988 nominee, who was booted from office in 1980 and then elected a second time, by six points, in 1982. And, though Mitt Romney didn’t run for reelection, it’s likely he would have been defeated.

Top Republicans are also quick to point out that Walker has qualities that can compensate for his failure to waltz to victory in November. Though he is the top target of unions this cycle, Walker, who doesn’t have a college degree, has tremendous potential appeal to blue-collar voters, who largely supported him in 2010. That’s a group that Republicans, with Mitt Romney as their standard bearer, struggled mightily with in 2012, and it will undoubtedly become a focus in 2016. The son of a Baptist preacher, Walker is also popular among religious conservatives. And he’s one of the few potential GOP nominees with a foot in both the establishment and tea-party camps.

Walker also likes to say this is his third race in four years and, if he wins in November, his primary selling point may be his proven ability to repeatedly win drag-out fights in a left-leaning state.

“He’s run more in the last four years than any Republican out there,” O’Connell says. “That durability is key.”

Assuming he can endure in November.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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