With Money and Momentum, Scott Walker Gains Ground in Wisconsin Recall Campaign

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Seth Perlman / AP

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during an event to at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

Brown Deer, Wisconsin

On Wednesday morning, Scott Walker slipped into a sheet-metal fabricating plant on an industrial street in Milwaukee’s outskirts. Argon Industries is the kind of gritty, thriving small business Walker venerates: a 91-person outfit that added staff in a sluggish economy and now, on its 10th anniversary, boasts nearly $13 million in annual revenue. The Wisconsin governor crossed the factory floor, asking questions about the heavy machinery and inspecting racks piled with sheets of steel before a low-key press conference.  “We’re blessed to have him choose us,” says Greg Clement, the company’s president. Apart from the firm’s employees and a few reporters, there was hardly anyone present.

The minimalist, almost stealthy campaign appearance is characteristic of Walker’s approach to the June 5 recall election that could oust him from office or make him one of the Republican Party’s brightest national stars. Beside the presidential contest, Walker’s recall fight might be the most hyped race of 2012, a national flashpoint that is partly a referendum on Walker’s slashing approach to public unions, and partly a dry run for two parties hoping to energize their bases in November. But his campaign has zero interest in political pageantry. It doesn’t hold massive rallies. The location of its headquarters hasn’t even been made public. For the most controversial governor in the country, the numbers are all that matter.

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These days, the numbers look good for Walker. The public opinion polls, which registered a virtual dead heat in recent months, are beginning to inch in his favor. A Marquette Law School survey released May 16 has the incumbent up six points, a big swing from last month’s virtual tie. It’s one of at least five polls in recent days that showed the incumbent edging ahead.

But those weren’t the figures Walker was trumpeting in Argon’s dimly lit factory. The state had just released new quarterly census data that indicated Wisconsin gained 23,000 jobs in 2011, a far rosier portrait than prior reports suggested. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state had lost more jobs than any other in the first year of Walker’s term. Walker’s newly minted Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has been pummeling the governor over jobs, and the new stats serve as armor against those blows. “The biggest issue they had is no longer an issue,” Walker said, standing under a banner inscribed with Argon’s mantra, Nothing is Impossible. “Everything they said about jobs is now contradicted by the facts.”

Maybe. There are questions about the data’s expedited release – a seemingly political ploy to break good news that wasn’t due until after voters trekked to the polls next month–as well as its usefulness, since making comparisons to neighboring states won’t be possible until they disclose their own stats next month. And new monthly data released the following day painted a grimmer picture. But with some three weeks before the election, Walker, 44, appeared better positioned to survive the Democratic onslaught than at any time since his law curbing collective bargaining for most public employees spurred 100,000 protesters to descend on the capitol in Madison and made him the top national target of an opposing party determined to teach the new breed of budget-cutting Tea Partyers a lesson.

As a campaigner, Walker’s primary strength is message discipline. He has a knack for steering every question, no matter how far-flung, back to mind-numbing campaign boilerplate within a single sentence. But it is the discipline of his allies that has helped him open up ground on Barrett.

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The GOP has made Walker’s survival a signal priority. In a party whose divisions were laid bare during a bitter presidential primary, Walker earns lavish praise from Tea Partyers, corporate benefactors and top politicians alike. Mitt Romney called him a “hero”; wealthy businessman David Koch pledged to spend big to keep him in office. A quirk in Wisconsin law enabled Walker to raise unlimited funds during the roughly five-month period from the initiation of the recall process until an election date was set, and wealthy Republican benefactors poured more than $25 million into Walker’s coffers, giving him a huge financial advantage over Barrett, who raised about $1 million. “As an organization, we have invested more resources in the state of Wisconsin than any other,” says Luke Hilgemann, the Wisconsin director of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed national advocacy group that earlier this year pumped at least $700,000 into TV ads in Wisconsin.

As the Republicans folded together like Russian nesting dolls, the Democrats have been riven by conflicting interests. Labor unions pumped several million dollars into the losing campaign of Barrett’s primary opponent, and the national party has been tentative about going all in. Meanwhile, Walker’s allies built a state-of-the-art ground game to protect a politician so reviled by his opponents that they have taken to burning his campaign signs. “They can protest,” Wisconsin GOP communications director Ben Sparks says of the Democrats. “They’ve got us beat on that. But that’s about all they’ve got us beat on.”

Wisconsin has a vaunted progressive strain. It was the first state to codify collective-bargaining rights in 1959, as well as the first to offer workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance. But it is also the birthplace of the Republican Party, the home of the John Birch Society and the stomping ground of conservatives from Joe McCarthy to Paul Ryan. Among his supporters, there is a belief that Walker’s recall would be a disaster. “If he gets recalled, you start asking, What’s the point?” says Ken Friday, Argon Industries’ director of operations. “The leechers who want to suck off the government have got to pay their fair share.”

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RNC chair Reince Priebus was the head of Wisconsin’s GOP before decamping for Washington, and he left behind a disciplined organization steeled by recent political combat, including state senate recall elections in 2011, state supreme court elections, a marquee U.S. Senate tussle in 2010, and a pair of tight presidential battles in 2000 and 2004. The Wisconsin GOP, which is running Walker’s ground game, has opened 23 “victory centers,” where volunteers have made more than 2 million calls to voters since January. “There’s no question they’re very organized. They’re in lockstep,” Erik Kirkstein, political director of United Wisconsin, which spearheaded the recall campaign against Walker, says of the Republicans. Says Tom Evenson, Walker’s press secretary: “We’ve had now a solid campaign season in Wisconsin since 2010.”

With only a tiny sliver of voters on the fence in the recall, Sparks thinks the election will be a simple test of who can do a better job of turning out their respective base. Right now, the Republicans are winning on that score. In the Marquette poll out this week, 91% of Republicans reported they were “absolutely certain” to vote, compared to 83% of Democrats and independents. Walker’s approval rating, which has hardly moved during the pitched battle over his controversial reforms, also shows positive signs. Respondents were evenly split–38% to 37%–on whether they supported his policies. Another 22% said they liked what he had done, but not how he had done it – a figure that suggests they may be willing to forgive the means for the sake of the ends.

In an interview, Walker acknowledged that he had done a poor job explaining his “budget repair” bill, which included the collective bargaining restrictions, before forcing it through a split state legislature. “My problem was, I just rushed in to fix it before talking about it,” he says. “Most people I talk to around the state, and most polls reflect this as well – they like the results. There’s more we could have done to fix the process.”

As he juggles official campaign duties and vies to stay in office, Walker is still not talking to voters much. Rather than engaging in the elaborate political staging that often dominates this phase of hard-fought campaigns, his public appearances have consisted of small press gaggles at factories that have benefited from a manufacturing tax credit he put in place. On Thursday, he visited a cast-film company in Rhinelander and a plastics shop in Green Bay, where he played up the jobs data that favor him – Barrett called the numbers a “political stunt” – and dismissed the data that didn’t.

Even if you grant Walker that argument, the incremental gains still leave the governor far off pace to meet the 250,000 jobs he promised to create in his first term. In a deft piece of spin, Walker says that his own survival would be the best thing for job growth in the state, because it would offer certainty for business owners fearful of new taxes under Barrett. “The victory in and of itself will be a major jump-start for jobs,” he says. But Walker also says it would send a clear message to business owners and opponents alike: “These reforms will continue.”

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