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Scott Walker's Race for Governor Could Shape U.S. Politics for Years to Come

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Everyone knows the most important political race in the country this fall is the race that determines control of the U.S. Senate, which is very much up in the air. According to The New York Times prediction model, the deciding race would be North Carolina if the election were held today. Winning there would likely give Democrats a 50-50 split (assuming that two independents continue to caucus with them) and allow Vice President Joe Biden to cast a deciding 101st vote.

But what’s the second most important election in the country? You might be tempted to say it’s another competitive race like Louisiana, Arkansas, or Colorado. But I’d argue that the second most important election isn’t a Senate race at all. In fact, it’s one whose winner won’t even hold office in Washington, at least not right away. It’s the campaign for governor of Wisconsin, which pits incumbent Scott Walker against Mary Burke, a little-known executive at the bike manufacturer Trek. And it could shape U.S. politics for years to come.

Walker achieved conservative icon status by gutting collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions and preventing the unions from automatically deducting dues from members’ paychecks. The law he signed triggered a backlash from Democrats across Wisconsin and ultimately led to an attempted recall in 2012, while also causing the state’s public unions to hemorrhage members.

Walker survived the recall vote by a healthy 53-46 margin, and since then most of us who only vaguely follow the headlines from his state have assumed he’ll coast to re-election. But Walker is emphatically not coasting. His favorability rating has been under water for months. Polls consistently show the race a tossup, and Burke actually held a one-point lead among likely voters in the latest Marquette University Law School poll, the most respected survey in the field. It turns out there’s a sizable group of Wisconsin voters who didn’t believe Walker’s record merited a recall but don’t exactly love the guy either.

All of which is to say this is a very winnable race for Burke, provided Democratic donors give her the cash to compete with Walker, and that the Democratic base turns out in adequate numbers. (Burke is polling so well she only needs a solid rather than an amazing turnout—eminently doable even in a nonpresidential year.)

To see why doing this is so worth Democrats’ while, first consider a world in which Republicans win the Senate, which the Times gives a 64 percent chance of happening. If that world comes to pass and Walker wins re-election, Republicans in Washington will almost certainly take it as an invitation to double-down on Walker’s slash-and-burn tactics on a national level. What Walker has done in Wisconsin, after all, isn’t just make it harder for union members to bargain for higher wages—something conservatives see as a worthy end in itself. He’s effectively defunded a key Democratic constituency, something Republican partisans around the country are keen to replicate, and that even the national Republican Party has experimented with in limited ways.

Other than control of Congress and the presidency—one of which may no longer be a problem in November, the other of which may no longer be a problem in 2017—the only thing holding them back is fear that middle-of-the-road voters will reject the naked power grab. A Scott Walker win in November would go a long way toward dispelling those fears.

If, on the other hand, Walker were to lose, you could imagine the GOP being somewhat chastened, even with complete control of Congress. As one Democratic consultant who’s been following the race closely told me, “They’ll have Walker as an example of overreach. [Democrats will be able to say,] ‘Yes Mitch McConnell, you run the Senate. But look what happened to Walker.’” It’s something Congressional leadership will have to think pretty hard about before they bring the Walker agenda to Washington.

But consider what happens if Republicans fail to win the Senate, in which case Walker’s re-election may loom even larger. The GOP will be coming off its third disappointing election in four cycles. Some Republicans will insist it’s long past time to moderate the party’s stance on issues like immigration and gay rights, as they did after the 2012 drubbing. But those voices will almost certainly be drowned out by right-wingers who say Republicans haven’t stood firmly enough in defense of conservative principles. And Walker, the governor who managed to destroy the left and live to tell about it in a swing state, will loom as an incredibly appealing model. His brand of aggressively partisan, aggressively conservative politics will immediately vault him to the top tier of presidential candidates for 2016.

Of course, if the GOP loses the Senate and Walker loses, too, I have no illusions that the GOP’s moderate reformers will suddenly win out. The party that rallied around Ted Cruz and ousted Eric Cantor partly over his supposed liberal heresies isn’t tacking to the political center any time soon. But, in a way, that’s exactly the point. What makes Walkerism so dangerous is that it puts a moderate face on what’s actually a pretty extreme set of policies. A politician working from Walker’s playbook can always say he or she is out to save taxpayers money and make government more efficient even as they’re really out to upend a decade-olds arrangement between workers and employers. (If you think Walkerism would stop at public employees unions, I have a beautiful timeshare in Green Bay to sell you…)

But if Walker loses and the GOP has to look elsewhere for a way out of the wilderness, it will likely be left with candidates who espouse radical policies that lack Walker’s moderate veneer—the Ted Cruzes and Rick Perrys of the world. That sounds like a much better deal if you’re a Democrat, since it’s much easier to fight nuttiness when it looks nutty than when it goes down as smooth as a Wisconsin dairy product. (Er, so to speak.) Anyone who disagrees need only look to that moderate former president, George W. Bush, who, with a few noble exceptions, somehow didn’t manage to raise many alarm bells until after he was elected.

So, long story short, this Wisconsin election is an enormously big deal. The problem is that almost no one has an incentive to tout it as such. Burke, for her part, understandably wants to keep the focus on local issues, having learned from the recall that Wisconsin voters don’t view their state as the place where Liberalism and Conservatism should slug it out. The national media is, naturally, preoccupied with federal elections. And even when it turns to gubernatorial races, it tends to hype those in bigger states, or those with more vulnerable incumbents. (To his credit, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has been one of the few national reporters to grasp the potency of Burke’s challenge.)

Then there are progressives, who pine for a candidate more in the mold of Elizabeth Warren than a former business executive like Burke, with her relatively centrist record on labor and education. Some also feel burned by the 2012 recall and are wary of raising the stakes in Wisconsin all over again, particularly in a non-presidential year when the electorate skews right. Many of the national progressive groups I reached out to for this piece either passed on commenting or put me in touch with local allies in Wisconsin, suggesting it’s not a race they’re particularly consumed by, even if they would love to see Walker go down. (The exception is Jim and Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, which, according to spokesman Neil Sroka, sees the race as a "priority.") Their energy is quite reasonably trained on the Senate. 

All of that makes sense on some level—I too would love a more progressive candidate in Wisconsin, and I worry about the skew of the midterm electorate. But the logic happens to be wrong in this case. Wisconsin is where it’s at these days, whether or not progressives go all in.

Conservatives certainly appreciate this. It’s time the left did, too.