SCOTT WALKER’S easy polling days are over. Republicans admire his ability to win elections in a finely-balanced state and then, in office, deliver radical Republican reforms. Polls now suggest that Governor Walker may lose to a man who once scraped mould from cheese for a living.
Wisconsin tends to pick a governor from the party that does not control the White House. “The mood is bad,” reckons Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No poll has put Mr Walker ahead for months. Democrats are energised by a national anti-Trump mood and because of their victories in state special elections. Mr Walker has said repeatedly that he is “at risk”, “an underdog” and that his party could face a “blue wave”. Wisconsin’s Republicans are wary. Polls suggest Tammy Baldwin, a progressive, openly gay senator who was once a Republican target, will be re-elected. A spirited contest is going on in a once super-safe Republican congressional seat vacated by Paul Ryan.
Mr Walker does have a story to tell. Wisconsin’s economy is humming. Unemployment has been under 3% for many months. Employers grumble most about finding workers. Foxconn Technology Group last year agreed to build a whopping factory that will, supposedly, create another 13,000 jobs in the state.
In Tomahawk, in the forested north, tourist sites do brisk trade. Farther north there is a boom in mining fine sand used for fracking. In Janesville, a once down-in-the-dumps town, the revival is visible. A decade after General Motors closed a big car plant, a developer is renovating the site for investors. Flourishing firms nearby include a maker of medical isotopes, big warehouses for retailers, and popular cafés such as the Bodacious Brew. One measure of renewed local bustle is that next month, for the first time in a decade, the town will issue parking tickets.
Yet more economic zip does not solve Mr Walker’s trickiest problem, which is that voters in a habitually swingy state seem bored with him. Not all object that he “cut the legs out from strong teachers’ unions”, says Frank Schultz, a veteran journalist in Janesville. But many say funding has been far too low since 2011, when the governor cut the education budget by about $1bn. Strain and low morale are evident. The mother of a pupil in Madison complains that her daughter’s high-school class has ballooned to 40 children. Inequity is stark: white pupils hugely outperform black ones in reading and maths. The gap is worse than in almost any other state.
Education is also in focus because the governor’s opponent, Tony Evers—who scraped mouldy cheese as a teenager—until recently ran the state’s schools. Voters like his vows to reverse the cuts, spend $600m more on special-needs pupils and extend kindergarten. Mr Walker has tried calling himself a “pro-education governor” and last year restored $650m to the schools budget. But holding back for so long put him out of step with voters. Jason Stein of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a think-tank, points to lots of ballot initiatives for emergency spending on schools. Next month voters in 61 school districts (of 421) will weigh spending an extra $1.4bn. This may well be the busiest year since 2001 for such initiatives; many will pass.
Mr Evers has problems too. He lacks charisma. A sympathetic local writer, John Nichols, sums him up as “dry, diligent and drenched in old Wisconsin…ideal as a candidate in 1938”. Mr Evers also risks being overshadowed by his livelier young running mate, the candidate for lieutenant-governor, Mandela Barnes, an Instagram enthusiast from a tough corner of Milwaukee.
Democrats expect Mr Walker to outspend them heavily as the race tightens before polling day. The outcome will be significant either way. Democrats will not control the state Assembly, so Mr Evers talks of co-operating with moderate Republican legislators, notably on education and roads. Mr Nichols says that would rekindle an “old Wisconsin” spirit. It is a nice idea, though Mr Walker might just grind out one more victory with the promise of yet more tax cuts.
Correction (October 12th 2018): Mandela Barnes is a candidate for lieutenant-governor, not lieutenant-general, as we originally wrote.