Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies tried to change the conversation of his re-election campaign on Monday, as bad news piled up for the two-term Republican incumbent.
The Republican Governors Association announced a new attack ad against his Democratic opponent, Tony Evers, while Walker opened a new front in the campaign by claiming that Evers, the state schools chief, hasn’t done enough to close the achievement gap.
Walker is on the ballot for the first time since his short-lived presidential run ended in September 2015. Viewed as a rising star in the Republican Party after he defeated a recall election in 2012, a win that fueled his presidential bid, Walker now finds himself in the political fight of his life.
Polls over the past month have shown the race between Walker and Evers, a low-key career educator, to be a dead heat in Wisconsin, which is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. But in a bad sign for Walker, the polls also show independent voters who have been critical to his narrow victories in the past are moving away from Walker.
Democrats see the midterm election, which comes after a string of Democratic election victories in the state and as polls show high enthusiasm on the left, as their best chance ever to take out Walker.
There was a cascade of bad news for Walker over the weekend.
A third former Walker Cabinet secretary spoke out against the governor, saying Walker is not telling the truth about road projects. There were also reports about mounting legal costs to defend lawsuits by inmates at the state’s juvenile prison and increased scrutiny of Walker’s use of the state airplane, which critics say he’s exploiting for political gain.
On Monday, the Republican Governors Association tried to come to the rescue, announcing its first ad in a $5.7 million TV buy for the final two months of the race. The ad, which began airing Saturday, hits on a familiar theme for Walker and his allies, accusing Evers of not doing enough to revoke the license of a middle school teacher who viewed pornographic images on his school computer.
The Democratic Governors Association plans to spend $3.8 million on TV ads before Election Day. But Evers and his Democratic allies concede that they will be outspent by Walker and his better-funded supporters. Walker and the state Republican Party had $8.6 million cash on hand in July.
Also on Monday, Walker tweeted that Evers hasn’t done enough to close the achievement gap between white and non-white students. Wisconsin’s achievement gap has historically been one of the worst in the nation.
“In Evers’ failed effort to address the achievement gap, all he’s given Wisconsin is excuses,” Walker tweeted. “We’ve kept our promises to the people of Wisconsin. ... We stand by our words, he should too.”
Evers says in a statement that all of his budget requests made to Walker included policies designed to close the achievement gap but “very few of those items are given consideration. The governor knows that.”
Evers’ spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, said Walker was trying to distract from the string of recent bad news, including the lengthy statement issued over the weekend by Mark Gottlieb, a former state representative who was Walker’s Transportation Department secretary from 2011 to 2017. In it, Gottlieb accused Walker of providing untrue statements about how decisions are made about what transportation projects are funded in the state.
Gottlieb’s attack came after Walker suggested that the state could save money by not adding lanes when it rebuilds roads, a comment that drew praise from environmental groups that have warned for years about the overbuilding of highways.
Road funding is a key issue in the race, with Evers blaming Walker for not addressing the deteriorating condition of Wisconsin’s roads. Some Democrats have taken to referring to potholes as “Scottholes.”
Two other past Walker Cabinet members, former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall and Financial Institutions Secretary Peter Bildsten, have also spoken out against Walker in recent weeks and appeared in digital ads for Evers.
Bildsten, who was in Walker’s Cabinet from 2011 until early 2015, told The Associated Press on Monday that he wouldn’t be surprised if more former Walker allies came forward to oppose him. Bildsten accused Walker of becoming increasingly focused on his political future after the failed 2012 recall attempt, rather than doing what’s best for the state.
“Wisconsin is exhausted from this sort of divisiveness,” said Bildsten, who is semi-retired and said he plans to vote for Evers. “I think Wisconsin is ready for something different.”