Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Friday asked voters to let him keep leading what he called the state’s economic turnaround, while his Democratic opponent, state Superintendent Tony Evers, vowed to change what he said is Walker’s approach of putting his political ambitions ahead of Wisconsinites.
The exchange came during the candidates’ first debate at the WMTV-TV studios in Madison.
The debate came amid a crush of developments in the final weeks of what polls have shown is likely a close race. Evers acknowledged early Friday that his agency failed to properly attribute parts of a budget plan. Walker faced flak from a trio of his former Cabinet members who announced they’re backing Evers.
Walker took the offensive in the debate on taxes, saying Evers would seek to increase them, including on fuel and farmers and manufacturers.
Walker cast himself as the leader of the state’s turnaround from when he was first elected in 2010.
“I’m proud to be your governor. I’m proud of what we’ve done together over the last eight years to turn this state around,” Walker said.
Evers cast himself as a unifying figure for a state he said is fed up with “political rancor” and what he called Walker’s “divide and conquer” approach.
“I’m an educator and I bring people together,” Evers said in his closing remarks.
The candidates are set to debate again next Friday in Milwaukee.
Walker showed greater polish in Friday’s debate format than Evers, often answering moderators’ questions more succinctly. Walker also declined to directly answer some questions, including on drunken-driving penalties.
Surprisingly absent from the debate was the $3 billion state subsidy package for electronics maker Foxconn to locate near Racine, arguably the most high-profile, controversial law passed during the 2017-18 legislative session.
Evers said during the debate that he supports giving in-state costs for college and university tuition to so-called Dreamers, or immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — as 20 other states have done. When repeatedly pressed, Walker said the move would violate federal law.
Evers also said he would support giving driver permits to Wisconsin workers living in the U.S. illegally.
Evers said he would “look at” ending Wisconsin’s distinction as the only state that treats a first drunken-driving offense as a civil, instead of criminal, violation. But he said he would do so only if such a move were linked to treatment instead of incarceration. Walker did not say if he would treat a first drunken-driving offense as criminal, saying he would instead focus on repeat offenders.
Evers said he supports preserving health coverage protections for people with pre-existing conditions, noting Walker has supported repealing the federal Obamacare law that implemented them. Walker has noted he supports a state bill to preserve some, though not all, of the Obamacare protections for people with serious health problems, if the federal law is repealed.
Walker renewed his claim Evers would increase the gas tax by as much as $1 a gallon.
Evers responded that the claim is ridiculous and “it’s never going to happen.” Evers has left open the possibility of some gas-tax increase but has said he’s open to a range of solutions to fix the state’s roads and bridges, which he says Walker has neglected.
Asked about the marijuana legalization advisory referendums in many jurisdictions on the Nov. 6 ballot, Evers noted he is open to legalization if voters support it. Walker reiterated his opposition to legalization because he says law enforcement opposes it.
Early Friday, Evers acknowledged — facing plagiarism charges from Walker — that the Department of Public Instruction, which Evers leads, submitted a state budget plan that contained passages without proper citations.
A day earlier, three former Walker Cabinet members came forward to accuse Walker of putting his own political ambitions before governing the state and announced they’re backing Evers. They are Paul Jadin, who led Walker’s jobs agency, former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall and former Financial Institutions Secretary Peter Bildsten. Walker’s former Transportation Secretary, Mark Gottlieb, also has publicly criticized him.
Also in recent days, President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama announced plans to visit Wisconsin next week to rally their respective parties before the election.
Trump will be in Mosinee, near Wausau, on Wednesday with Walker and U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir. Obama will be in Milwaukee with Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin next Friday.