MILWAUKEE — Standing in front of a beer pasteurizing tank at a Milwaukee manufacturing company, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker watched as former Gov. Tommy Thompson exhorted a friendly Republican crowd to help Walker prevail in his surprisingly precarious race for a third term.
“I know the recipe works,” declared Thompson, waving his arms and wearing a bright red sweater under his suit coat on a cool October day. “The recipe is Scott Walker. You know like a good chocolate chip cookie, it sort of melts in your mouth? You know it really feels good.”
But the old recipe for victory may not be working in a midterm election where Democrats appear poised to do well across the country. Ominous polls have Walker in trouble, and he’s sounding the alarm to supporters. Democrats, after years of failure and frustration, are daring to hope that they may finally slay their political white whale.
If the onetime presidential candidate and Republican rising star loses, it would qualify as one of the bigger upsets of the midterm election because of his record in difficult situations before — winning election and re-election despite two victories in his state by Barack Obama, and turning back a 2012 recall attempt by Democrats incensed by his attack on public-sector unions.
A Walker loss to Tony Evers, the bland 66-year-old state education superintendent who enjoys Egg McMuffins and playing the card game euchre, would also give Democrats hope for the future in a state that Republicans have had a firm grip on for eight years.
Walker’s approval rating remains below 50 percent and President Donald Trump’s is worse, even though Trump carried the state two years ago. Critical independent voters who had favored Walker seem to be leaning Democratic. While Wisconsin’s economy is humming and polls show people believe the state is headed in the right direction, they’re also crossways with Walker on major issues that Evers is trying to exploit, including health care, education and roads.
Evers has pledged to reverse ill effects from Walker’s budget austerity, which Walker credits for boosting the economy.
“I’ve seen on the faces of our kids what the devastation of Scott Walker’s cuts to public education has done,” said Evers, a former school teacher and administrator, referring to $700 million in education budget cuts, some of which was later restored. “I’ve seen parents and families struggling with rising health care costs and stagnant wages.”
Walker insists he can make a strong case for being re-elected.
Sporting a Milwaukee Brewers warmup jacket to celebrate the team’s playoff run, he riffed at the Milwaukee rally about unemployment levels at or near record lows of 2.8 percent and the tax, budget and regulation cuts he pushed through in his two terms. He promised more money for schools.
“The people of this state don’t want to go backwards,” Walker said, “they want to go forward.”
Ted Kieper, 75, a Walker supporter at the event, said he can’t understand why Walker is in a close race given the strong economy.
“I’m hoping the polls are wrong like they were in the presidential election,” he said.
Recent surveys have shown a persistent enthusiasm gap for Republicans, fueling optimism for Democrats who have already won two special legislative elections and captured a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat this year. Adding to the sense of Walker’s vulnerability: Four of his former Cabinet secretaries have publicly criticized the governor, including three who have endorsed his opponent.
With many left-leaning voters inflamed by Trump — who is scheduled to campaign in central Wisconsin this week for Walker and other Republicans — Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has held a double-digit lead over Republican challenger Leah Vukmir despite heavy GOP spending in that race.
In the August primary, about 20 percent more voters cast ballots in the Democratic contest for governor than in the Republican primary for Senate.
“When he’s run before they were all in very good Republican environments, where Republicans did well in Wisconsin, they did well across the country,” said Marquette University political science professor Paul Nolette. “This year is much different.”
But Democrats have been burned by false optimism before.
They can’t “spike the football on the 5-yard line,” Democratic strategist Patrick Guarasci said. Victory will require getting every possible Democratic voter to the polls, he said.
In 2014, Walker won by more than five points over Democrat Mary Burke after polls a month earlier had the race even.
“He will be in every corner of the state between now and November,” longtime Republican strategist Stephan Thompson said. “He will not be outworked.”
Walker, the 50-year-old son of a Baptist preacher, has led a conservative revolution since becoming governor in 2011. Besides rolling back benefits for public worker unions, he made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, signed a voter ID law, and scaled back environmental regulations, which made him a national political figure, though a 2016 presidential bid faded early.
Walker will be tapping a battle-tested get-out-the-vote operation. He and GOP allies have outspent Evers 2-to-1 on television advertising.
Evers has emphasized improving state services and health care, pledging to drop Wisconsin from a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. He has promised to increase school funding by 10 percent, end a tax credit benefiting large corporations, and possibly increase the gasoline tax to repair dilapidated roads.
“Scott Walker has made decision after decision that benefits himself and his wealthy donors and not what benefits us, the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said.