Some state Assembly Republicans and their backers are touting their opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed education cuts in their bids to get re-elected.
Campaign fliers, websites or radio advertisements promoting a handful of Assembly Republicans from across Wisconsin emphasize their opposition to proposals made by Walker — including a proposed cut to K-12 education funding and the state’s SeniorCare program.
It’s the first election cycle for the lawmakers since Walker’s popularity across the state has waned in the wake of his short-lived campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, during which he submitted a state budget that his critics described as a presidential platform and ultimately drew opposition from his own party.
Now, a handful of those lawmakers in districts that could swing back to Democrats are using that opposition to win support from voters.
“Under the current administration, it’s usually been the opposite — most Republicans were waterskiing behind his boat,” Republican strategist Bill McCoshen said of Walker.
But the governor’s job approval ratings have plummeted in the past 18 months, and the public never liked his proposals to cut millions of dollars from the University of Wisconsin System and K-12 schools.
A Marquette Law School Poll in April 2015, after Walker submitted his 2015-17 budget proposal, found 78 percent of respondents opposed his plan to cut $127 million from schools.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who leads Assembly Republican campaign efforts, did not return calls seeking comment.
Eleven Assembly Republicans and one Senate Republican voted against the 2015-17 budget. The GOP-led Legislature changed or rejected a number of Walker proposals.
McCoshen said Republican lawmakers up for re-election in tough races may now be using campaign rhetoric that suggests independence from Walker to make “voters understand that they did what they could.”
A Walker spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Across the state
Republicans hold a 63-36 majority in the Assembly. So there’s little chance that Democrats will upend their hold on power.
But in a volatile election year, and with concern that the unpopularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could affect state and local races, some Republicans are touting their willingness to stand independent from what polls show is an unpopular governor.
Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, recently mailed a campaign flier that says she “stood up against the governor’s budget cuts to education.” In the 2014 election, Bernier garnered 53 percent of votes to her opponent’s 47 percent. She faces Democrat Howard White this election.
“Since I was first elected, I have always stood up for what is right for the Chippewa Valley. I’m proud that, on many of our reforms, Governor Walker and I have worked together. But on the last budget, I couldn’t agree with his cuts to the university system and K-12 education,” she said in a statement.
Rep. Nancy VanderMeer, R-Tomah, lists on her website a number of proposals from Walker that she worked to change — including a proposed $127 million cut to K-12 funding and a $15 million cut to SeniorCare. VanderMeer also beat her 2014 opponent 53-47 percent. She also voted against the budget and faces Democrat Mark Holbrook this year.
VanderMeer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
And the pro-school voucher group American Federation for Children’s political arm paid about $15,000 for a radio advertisement to promote Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending. Krug won in 2014 by a 56-44 percentage margin.
In the ad, Krug is touted as a lawmaker who stands “up against party leaders in Madison — like when he voted against Scott Walker’s budget because it didn’t provide enough funding for our local public schools and our university.”
American Federation for Children national spokesman Matt Frendewey said the strategy behind the ad is to “celebrate his independence.”
Krug didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But his opponent, David Gorski, expressed skepticism of Krug’s professed support for public school spending. He noted that American Federation for Children spent thousands on Krug in 2014 and this election and has advocated for the creation of voucher programs at the expense of public schools.
“All of a sudden Krug appears to be anti-Walker,” Gorski said in an email. “Suuure that’s believable.”
In the end, lawmakers rejected Walker’s proposed education cuts and allocated $200 million more to K-12 schools for 2015-17. Bernier, Krug and VanderMeer voted against the budget.
Other GOP lawmakers are also touting their support for education.
Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, squeaked through his 2014 election, 47.5 percent to his Democratic opponent’s 47.2 percent. A third candidate received 5.3 percent.
Novak doesn’t mention his party affiliation and says on his website that he has worked “across the aisle and at times bucking members of my own party.”
“When the governor proposed cuts to our schools, Todd instead called for added investments,” the website says. Novak also voted against the budget.
Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Oak Creek, also mentions on her campaign website she “fought to invest” $200 million into public schools.
And Republican Pat Snyder, who is seeking to replace Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Wausau, tapped into public unhappiness with public education spending levels in an op-ed published in the Wausau Daily Herald that says he pledges “to go against my own party if necessary and vote ‘no’ on Gov. Scott Walker’s next budget if it does not adequately fund public education.”
Novak, Snyder and Rodriguez did not respond to requests for interviews.
Walker has said that his top priority for the 2017-19 budget, which he’ll unveil early next year, is to boost K-12 spending.
George Aldrich, executive director of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, said even though those lawmakers voted against the state budget, it’s misleading for them to highlight their opposition to the governor.
“It’s outright deceptive for Republican legislators — who have voted with Gov. Walker and Republicans nearly 100 percent of the time — to claim they are anything other than rubber stamps for the Walker agenda,” he said.
Dennis Dresang, a retired political science professor at UW-Madison’s La Follette School for Public Affairs, said what’s unusual about this election cycle is having a governor that is not popular with the majority of residents and is considered a lame duck.
“Governor Walker is, as you know, not popular and there is a good chance he will not run for re-election, thus removing some of the leverage he might have,” Dresang said.
“So legislators have discretion and strategically are well-advised to distance themselves from unpopular and/or unwise policies, even when those policies are advocated by a governor of their own party.”
But McCoshen said Republicans are reacting to criticism from Democrats like Aldrich saying they’ll follow Walker’s lead.
“(The campaign messaging) allows them to show some independence (from Walker) — that they aren’t just rubber stamps for the governor,” McCoshen said.
Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said as long as the Assembly is run by Vos, Walker “is going to get whatever he wants passed by a lapdog Republican Assembly caucus.”
Ed Miller, a political science professor at UW-Stevens Point, said Republicans may also be trying to blunt charges by their Democratic opponents that to vote for the Republican is to vote for the cuts to public services supported by Walker.