Bangor, Wis. – Gov. Scott Walker stood in a steamy tent for an hour on a Saturday morning, depositing cheese curds on the plates of people who lined up at Creamery Creek farm for the La Crosse County dairy breakfast.
Wearing disposable gloves, jeans and a Milwaukee Bucks shirt, the Republican greeted youngsters and adults with a big grin and easy banter.
Walker didn’t look like a man who’s running scared in his quest for a third term on Nov. 6. But he insists that he is.
“Absolutely,” he said in an interview. “We’ve got to get people’s attention to tell them, ‘Hey, this is a real race.’ ” A supporter recently told him, “Oh, 2.8 percent unemployment — you’re going to be a slam dunk,” he said. “No, I’m not.”
Walker became a conservative champion in 2011 when he ended collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Minnesota’s eastern neighbor. Bitter protests followed, but he survived a 2012 recall election that enhanced his national stature and led to a brief 2016 presidential bid.
Walker’s worries echo those of Republicans across the U.S. who are bracing for a backlash election. Wisconsin helped put President Donald Trump in the White House — backing a GOP nominee for the first time since 1984 — and could be ripe for a Democratic resurgence fueled by rural and suburban voters dismayed with his presidency.
The fight for control of the U.S. Senate also will play out in the state: First-term Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is being targeted by Republicans.
Walker has been openly and repeatedly warning of a “blue wave” that could sweep Wisconsin Republicans out of office since a Democrat’s surprise win in a state Senate election in January. Courts intervened when he appointed two Republicans to the Legislature, then refused to call special elections to fill the seats. A Democrat won one of them. “The governor is nervous, and I think he has every reason to be nervous,” said state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, the Democratic minority leader whose district includes La Crosse County, which runs along Minnesota’s border southeast of Winona.
But it’s been hard so far for his foes “to try to get traction,” she said, “because there are just so many of them.” Eight Democrats will compete in the Aug. 14 primary election, the same day as Minnesota’s primary.
The large field is “a reflection of the fact that Democrats see Walker as vulnerable,” said Kenneth Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. It wouldn’t take much, he said, to produce “a meaningful pro-Democratic shift.”
A Marquette University Law School Poll released June 20 found that state schools Superintendent Tony Evers was the top choice among Democratic voters, but a third were undecided. Evers trailed in a matchup with Walker, 44 to 48 percent.
Walker’s job approval rating was 49 percent in the poll — up from 47 percent in March and 45 percent in March 2017. Forty-four percent approved of Trump’s performance.
Walker’s ratings have rebounded since September 2015, when approval was 37 percent after his run for the GOP presidential nomination.
“To get it back to … positive territory represents a success,” said Charles Franklin, the poll’s director. “It’s also worth noting that he rarely has had job approvals above 50 percent in his entire two terms.” His all-time high: 52 percent in 2012.
The dip that followed his presidential bid showed that “even people who had been voters of mine were frustrated that we were involved in a different race,” Walker said. Some of his supporters, he said, “had this feeling like we weren’t there.” He soon embarked on a listening tour of the state’s 72 counties.
His resilience is being tested now by voter discontent, the tricky task of adhering himself to Trump’s policies while distancing himself from the president’s rhetoric, and the national forces aligned against him.
Walker is among six governors targeted by Organizing for Action, a group formed by allies of former President Barack Obama. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, also hopes to defeat Walker.
He’s countering those obstacles by highlighting the state’s budget surplus, low jobless rate, a $100 per-child tax rebate and job-training and health care initiatives. He has proposed new investments in education, offsetting cuts made in his first budget.
Walker is also banking on support for a plant to be built near Milwaukee by Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn. A $4 billion state and local aid package helped lure its thousands of jobs to Wisconsin — and stirred some qualms about the size of the subsidies.
“It’s ironic that people who for years said we need more good-paying, family-supporting jobs are now against it,” Walker said in the interview. “This is a clear example of our opponents [saying] absolutely anything in an election year.”
Trump was in Wisconsin on Thursday for the project’s groundbreaking. “Foxconn would not be in America if not for you,” Walker told the president. Trump called the governor “a special talent.”
Trump’s visit came at an awkward time: The president had criticized Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson earlier in the week for planning to move some operations overseas because of his tariffs.
Before the Harley-Davidson flap, Walker — a Harley owner — said he supports Trump’s policy on tariffs — “assuming it’s not permanent.”
Walker, 50, has had a complex relationship with Trump. When the governor ended his presidential bid, he proposed narrowing the field to candidates with “positive, conservative” messages as alternatives “to the current front-runner” — Trump. Walker endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Wisconsin primary.
Walker said he likes what Trump has done for farmers, manufacturing and taxpayers, but distinguished his “Midwest nice” approach from the president’s caustic style. “Even in the height of the recall and the protests I never lashed out at people,” he said. “I don’t call people names. So, different styles but similar outcomes.”
History suggests that La Crosse County could be challenging terrain for Walker. Voters here favored his Democratic opponent in 2014. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton won 6,028 more votes than Trump here.
County Republican Party Chairman Bill Feehan said that while voters in the city of La Crosse typically support Democrats, “a lot of the rural voters don’t like what the Democratic Party stands for these days.” Walker should be re-elected, Feehan said, because “it’s hard to find things that are wrong.”
Will Glanville, 41, who works in finance and lives in Holmen, Wis., brought his family to the dairy breakfast.
Like Feehan, he’s satisfied with Walker’s job performance, giving him a score of “seven out of 10.” But he hesitated when asked if he’ll vote to give him another term. In general, he said, “I’m more for inclusion than exclusion.” And he worries that “there’s a lot of separation in the country, and that’s really unfortunate.”
Don Curti, 80, a farmer from Genoa, Wis., has no such qualms. “He’s my man,” he said of Walker. “He controls spending … and takes care of the people who pull the plow.”
Laurie Ellefson, 56, an educator and nurse from West Salem, Wis., hasn’t forgiven Walker for taking on public unions. She dislikes his record on environmental issues. And, she said, “anyone that supports Trump — I’m sorry.”
Rep. Gordon Hintz, Democratic leader of the state Assembly, warned his party not to overlook the governor’s assets: “He’s going to have unlimited money, and he’s proven himself to be an effective campaigner.”
Walker is betting that attacks will backfire. “People,” he said, “want to vote for something, not against something.”