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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers won Wisconsin’s Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday and will face Gov. Scott Walker in the fall election.

“The people of Wisconsin are tired of Scott Walker’s politics — the politics of division,” Evers said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re going to hold him accountable.”

The victory for Evers marks a critical turning point in the election. For months Walker has been awaiting an opponent among eight Democratic contenders. After Tuesday night’s primary it is down to a one-on-one sprint to the Nov. 6 general election.

Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, the longest-serving governor in state history who won a third term in 1994 with 67 percent of the vote, said the election will be Walker’s toughest yet — “even tougher than his recall.”

Thompson agreed with Walker’s recent assessment that the governor could be trailing in the first polls that come out after the primary. He said the race will be close because many people in Wisconsin like giving the other side a chance after eight years, the tea leaves point to a Democratic year and Walker has made many tough decisions that aren’t universally loved.

“You add those all together — I still think Scott can do it, and I’m going to help him — but it’s going to be right down to the end,” Thompson said.

Walker made his case for why he should be re-elected in a series of tweets after the polls closed Tuesday night, saying, “Wisconsin is working.”

“We are planning to build on our track record of getting positive things done for the people of Wisconsin,” Walker tweeted. “Sadly, our opponents endorse many of the same policies that got this state into trouble in the past. We don’t want to go back to the days of double-digit tax increases, billion-dollar budget deficits and record job loss. That would be a giant step backward.”

Walker, who easily won his own primary Tuesday against token opposition, declined an interview request.

Evers came into Tuesday as the favorite to win the nomination based on having more name recognition, winning three times in nonpartisan spring elections and leading in several public polls, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.

“Things will be different when the attention is really on these candidates and there’s a contrast drawn between them,” Burden said. “In general I think Walker has an advantage in a November election. He has been through this before. He will have the financial advantage over any candidate and he has already been honing his message. The complication for Walker is the wind is really blowing in the Democrats’ direction.”

Flurry of activity in final weeks

Although polling showed Evers with a double-digit lead in July, more than a third of respondents were undecided. And there was a flurry of campaign activity in the final two weeks, with six candidates advertising and former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn taking shots at Evers, former Rep. Kelda Roys and state firefighter union president Mahlon Mitchell.

On Tuesday night, Flynn said he would work with Evers to unite the party and beat Walker.

In general, the Democratic primary was mostly congenial with the most negative advertising and comments at candidate forums directed at Walker. All of the candidates except political activist Mike McCabe pledged to support the nominee. McCabe said Tuesday night he would support Evers, but added “it doesn’t really matter what I say, because people aren’t sheep.”

With more than half of the votes counted in Wisconsin, Evers held a more than 20-point lead over Mitchell, who won Milwaukee County. Roys, the only other candidate whose percentage of support reached double-digits, urged her supporters to work “even harder than we have been to win in November.”

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who announced during the campaign he won’t seek another mayoral term, extended his complete support to Evers. Asked whether this was his last campaign for public office, he said: “I didn’t hear that last question and don’t bother asking it again.”

10 on ballot

Tuesday’s contest had 10 Democratic candidates on the ballot, though Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik and Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire, dropped out after a June Marquette Law School Poll showed them trailing the field. Both still were getting more votes Tuesday than corporate lawyer Josh Pade, who jumped in the race late and never gained traction.

The field was the largest ever for a Wisconsin gubernatorial primary, breaking the previous record of six, most recently in 1942, according to research by University of Minnesota political science research fellow Eric Ostermeier.

Evers will benefit from the primary not being a “knock-down, drag-out” ordeal, said Ed Miller, a retired UW-Stevens Point political science professor.

“He’s going in with a fairly clean image,” Miller said. “The question is whether he’s sufficiently aggressive to beat Walker.”

Miller said Walker also faces a handful of challenges in seeking re-election to a third term, particularly the public’s tepid response to more than $4 billion in state and local taxpayer incentives for Foxconn Technology Group, which is building a $10 billion flatscreen manufacturing campus in Racine County. And Walker has embraced polarizing President Donald Trump, Miller said, which could affect his vote count in November.

Statewide tours launch campaign

Both Walker and Evers are planning to embark on statewide campaign tours Wednesday. On the first day Walker will be in Onalaska, Eau Claire, Schofield, Green Bay and Waukesha.

Evers will be in Madison, Appleton and Waukesha. He’ll be joined by former Milwaukee Rep. Mandela Barnes, who won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, defeating Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober.

Though the Democratic nominee enters the general election with a fraction of Walker’s campaign cash, the Democratic Party and Democratic Governors Association have been building a campaign infrastructure by lining up donors, compiling a list of potential campaign staff and reserving millions of dollars in TV ad time in the final weeks of the general election.

In response, the Republican Governors Association has reserved $5.7 million of TV ad time in the final nine weeks of the campaign to boost Walker.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin is also poised to provide Walker with TV advertising support. The party has reserved $500,000 in TV ad time over the next week, including an ad that launched Tuesday night during Evers’ primary victory speech focused on Evers’ decision not to revoke the license of a Middleton teacher who shared pornographic emails at school and was fired in 2010.

“Tony Evers is unfit to be governor after repeatedly siding with unions over families,” state GOP executive director Mark Morgan said. “His ongoing failed leadership shows that we can’t trust Evers to act in the best interest of our state.”

Evers, who said last year in response to the criticism that he didn’t have legal authority to revoke the license because it didn’t involve children — he later supported a change in law that would have automatically revoked the license — said Tuesday night: “Bring it on.”

“We know they’re going to carpet bomb this campaign,” Evers said. “That’s what they’re all about — dividing people against each other.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.