No bombs were dropped in the first debate between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke.
The candidates sparred during an hourlong exchange in Eau Claire Friday night, fielding questions from a panel of journalists. The exchange was broadcast throughout Wisconsin and nationally.
Walker, a pro on the campaign trail with two gubernatorial victories already under his belt, appeared at ease behind the podium. That smooth approach allowed him to offer anecdotes in lieu of direct answers when pressed on a few questions. Burke, in her first run for statewide office, took longer to warm up but responded gamely to every question.
Well, almost every question.
On Wisconsin's Voter ID law:
Burke voiced concerns with the law and its potential to put "roadblocks" in the way of people's ability to vote. She said the law sounds like a reasonable requirement until you talk to people about the hurdles it would create. Walker said the law makes it "easier to vote but harder to cheat" and protects the integrity of elections. When pressed on whether he would support Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen in his quest to reinstate the law in time for the Nov. 4 election, Walker said he hadn't spoken with Van Hollen directly. He said Wisconsin will abide by the direction of the court, but he thinks the law will ultimately be upheld.
On job creation:
Walker said he'd continue with the approach he's taken to job creation. He addressed his famous pledge to create 250,000 private-sector jobs in Wisconsin during his first term in his opening statement, by saying he aimed high and isn't done yet. He emphasized the 100,000 jobs that have been added rather than focusing on the original promise, which PolitiFact recently deemed "broken." It was his answer to this question that prompted the first "Jim Doyle" mention of the night, a campaign theme he's used to tie Burke to her time as commerce secretary for the Democratic former governor. Burke said one thing she would do to create jobs is reduce the cost of college. She said she would prioritize education in the state budget, increasing spending while cutting tax breaks for the wealthy.
On the minimum wage:
The candidates were asked pointed questions: Do you believe a Wisconsin worker can live on the state's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour? Does the state have any obligation to pay a minimum wage, and what should it be?
"I don't think our minimum wage is enough for folks to live on," Burke said, adding that she would "strongly support" an increase to $10.10 per hour, over three steps. A higher minimum wage would help the state's economy and reduce the number of people who rely on government assistance, she said.
Walker did not say whether he thinks a Wisconsin worker can live on the state's minimum wage, or what he thinks the minimum wage ought to be. He said the state should be focused on creating jobs that pay "much more than the minimum wage."
"We don't have a jobs problem in this state, we have a work problem," Walker said.
The issue has dominated the airwaves for the last week, most notably with a straight-to-camera ad in which Walker offers an explanation of his position and of a bill that requires women to get an ultrasound and have the fetus' visible organs and features described to them before having an abortion. The ad seems to have created more questions than answers, as it portrays the governor as a moderate on an issue he's held an absolutist stance on throughout his career. In past campaigns, Walker has said he opposes abortion completely, even in cases of rape or incest. In the ad, and in Friday's debate, he has simply said he is "pro-life," adding that he "can only imagine how difficult it is" for a woman to decide whether to end a pregnancy. As for whether he would try to ban abortion altogether, he said, "That issue's been resolved" in the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.
Burke said Walker is trying to "have it both ways." She said the decision should be left to a woman, according to her religious beliefs and the counsel of her family and her doctor.
On committing to a full term:
Burke said she would "absolutely" serve a full term — and not only that, but she would like to serve several more. She said she would "love to be the longest-serving governor" in Wisconsin. Walker joked about having worked hard to hold onto his seat thus far, then said his plan, if re-elected, is to stay for four years.
On accepting federal funds for the Medicaid expansion:
Walker took this moment to say he would like to repeal Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. He voiced a distrust in the federal government, expressing doubts that it would meet its funding obligations. Burke said accepting the funding "only makes sense," and that "in the business world, CEOs would be fired for this kind of fiscal irresponsibility."
On Act 10:
Burke agreed that employee contributions to their health care and pensions are "only fair." But, she said, when Walker introduced the law, he said it was necessary to get the state's fiscal affairs in order. She voiced doubts over that reasoning, pointing to the state's projected budget shortfall. Walker said Act 10 was about standing "with the hardworking taxpayers in this state," adding the law empowers local elected officials to do what they were elected to do.
On frac sand mining:
"Thanks to God and the glaciers, we have some of the best frac sand in the world," Walker said. He stressed the importance of finding a "healthy balance" between environmental protections and job creation. Burke countered that Wisconsin hasn't found that balance, and said control has been wrested from the local communities affected by mining activity.
On the budget:
Burke said she would cut items including the statewide voucher program, and would prioritize spending based on economic development. Walker said the budget is in better shape than it was when Doyle was in office, pointing to his property tax cuts, the statewide unemployment rate and the state's rainy day fund.
Say something nice about your opponent:
This was arguably the most interesting moment of the evening, even if it was the softest question. Candidates were asked, "What is one thing that your opponent brings to the table that you see as a positive to leading this state for the next four years?"
Walker praised Burke's philanthropic activities, noting her work with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
"She’s done some remarkable work, donated some great money, provided some great leadership there," he said.
Burke's response was delayed, as she looked toward the podium and paused.
"I think that, uh, Gov. Walker has certainly done, uh, some very good things in the community," Burke said. "Certainly his work around, uh, domestic abuse is important, along with some of the charitable work that he has done."
Conservative consultant Brian Fraley issued grades to the participants: a B for Walker, a C for Burke and a D for the panelists.
He sad Burke was less poised than he expected, and positioned herself far to the left.
"She thinks she's found the magic way to be pro jobs but anti business. Odd," he said. "Both candidates left a few arrows in the quiver. I wish Walker would have pounced on the tuition issue and took credit for the unprecedented freeze of tuition at UW schools. But overall, the news out of this debate, is the veneer is off Mary Burke. She did not come off as reasonable. She was not emanating strength and warmth, she was emanating Mark Pocan and Brett Hulsey."
He praised the governor's closing remarks, and said Burke's performance unraveled throughout the evening.
Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, pointed out the questions to which Walker did not provide a direct answer.
"On the important issues, like the right to choose and minimum wage, Scott Walker wouldn’t answer the question," Ross said. "On the failed direction of the state, Scott Walker pledged more of the same and Mary Burke offered new solutions. Scott Walker showed the cunning of a life-long politician and Mary Burke showed the sincerity of someone who wants to serve the public."
The candidates will face off again on Oct. 17 in Milwaukee.