Trump and Walker Spar in Wisconsin Primary

The governor of Wisconsin can serve for as many terms as he wants, provided he can keep getting reelected, of course. Back in January, around the time that he delivered the annual State of the State address, Scott Walker sent out a fundraising email that said, in part, “Our re-election campaign may seem like a long way off, but the other side is already gearing up for a bruising battle.”

Not everyone took this threat to run for a third-term very seriously:

The missive was aimed at helping retire more than $1 million in debt his federal campaign had amassed before he abandoned his run for president in September.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said he wasn’t buying it, noting Walker’s low approval ratings as measured in polls by Marquette University Law School. He said Walker is simply trying to avoid being seen as a lame duck.

Obviously, Walker’s presidential campaign fizzled so badly that it died in the crib long before a single voter went to an Iowa caucus. He had taken a lot of criticism for ignoring the needs of the state. Yet, precisely because his presidential ambitions hadn’t amounted to anything, he suddenly lacked any obvious political future unless he ran for reelection. And the idea isn’t all that far-fetched. Tommy Thompson served as Wisconsin’s governor for 14 years and 28 days between 1987 and 2001.

Remember, too, that Walker cited the need for the party to unite around an opponent to Trump as one of his reasons for dropping out early. That’s something that Trump remembers, and it’s becoming an issue now as the Republicans get ready to vote in the Wisconsin primary.

“I’m all in” for Cruz, Walker said Tuesday.

“I really beat (him) up badly and he walked out frankly in disgrace,” Trump said of Walker’s exit from the presidential race. “I’m surprised he’s got any juice left in Wisconsin.”

Trump might be surprised about Walker’s remaining strength in the Badger State, but according to Marquette University Law School’s 2016 polling, 84% of Republicans still have a positive view of the governor.

And that’s something that is going to really get put to the test in the primary, because Trump is running against Walker’s record as governor. He’s running aggressively against his record:

Trump is trying to win the Wisconsin primary while repudiating his party’s most influential figures here. He bragged Tuesday about crushing Walker’s presidential bid. He accused him of sowing discord and starving the schools because he refused to raise taxes.

Wisconsin has problems, Trump said in Janesville, but “you have a governor that has you convinced that it doesn’t have problems.”

Trump also said that Wisconsin “is doing very poorly,” and is “losing jobs all over the place.”

On that last point, the truth is relative.

A review of those federal data showed that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is at its lowest point since 2001 and that the state now has more than 2.9 million jobs, a figure it last reached in late 2007. But Wisconsin’s job growth during Walker’s tenure has lagged the national average and the fortunes of neighboring states.

The Democrats (and Trump) focus on the fact that Wisconsin has lagged behind the national average and neighboring states like Minnesota, but Republicans focus on the positive trends. The local GOP is not happy to hear Trump echoing Democratic talking points, and they aren’t pleased that their presidential frontrunner is calling them a disaster for refusing to raise taxes and wanting to take away people’s entitlements:

Calling in to a Rockford, Ill., radio station Tuesday morning, Trump said [Paul] Ryan was a “a really nice guy,” but “Paul wants to knock out Social Security, knock it down, way down, wants to knock Medicare way down … you’re going to lose the election if you do that.”

Said Trump: “I want to keep it. These people have been making their payments their whole lives … but they want to really cut it and they want to cut it very substantially, the Republicans. And I’m not going to do that.”

This all raises the stakes in Wisconsin considerably. If Trump can come in there and trash the governor, trash the Speaker of the House, and basically trash Republican orthodoxy on taxes and entitlements, and come away with a win?

Needless to say, the whole Wisconsin establishment is arrayed against Trump, including their formidable phalanx of suburban talk radio hosts. As I said above, the governor does still enjoy a very healthy approval number among Republican voters. If they can’t stop Trump, that will be a pretty strong indictment and a major show of weakness.

Even if they succeed in stopping Trump in the primary, unless he is prevented from being the nominee, it’s going to be hard for them to unite behind their candidate in the general election.

If Ted Cruz somehow gets the nomination, Walker will have a future in his administration. Otherwise, he’ll have to run for reelection or start shopping for a private sector job.

Yeah, I’d say that the stakes have gotten very high.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.