Quite Contrary

Could Scott Walker’s attacks on Mary Burke backfire?

Jens Voigt of Germany and Trek Factory Racing.
This bicycle pays its taxes through an S corporation.

Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker continues to take heat from fellow conservatives over his attacks on his Democratic opponent, Mary Burke. Two weeks ago, Walker launched a series of attacks charging that Burke benefited from outsourcing practices at Trek Bicycle, her family company where she was once an executive. A columnist for the Wall Street Journal slapped him for using a version of the same playbook Obama had used against Mitt Romney. 

Now a fellow Republican, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, is leveling a similar criticism. In an interview Tuesday with editors and reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the one-term senator said that he thought Walker and his campaign should drop the attacks. Johnson, a former CEO who spent millions on his own campaign, said he also disapproved of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which has made an issue of Burke’s wealth and dubs her “Millionaire Mary.” “Far too often in the political realm, we demonize success, we demagogue against it,” he said. “What we should be doing is incentivizing success.”

Before Walker took the stage at the Wisconsin State Fair on Tuesday night, where he was helping to raise money for the 4-H, he addressed Johnson’s remarks. “You’re not going to hear me or my campaign talk about it,” Walker said, referring to Burke’s wealth, “and I’d prefer the party talk about the differences on jobs. I haven’t gone after Trek, I haven’t gone after Mary Burke, I haven’t gone after her wealth at all. I could care less what her personal wealth is.” 

That’s not quite so. Walker’s campaign has also referred to Burke as “Millionaire Mary” a few times, and in his ad, titled “Fortune,” Burke is featured holding two bags full of cash. 

His point, according to Walker, is that Burke is a hypocrite. She attacks Walker administration programs that support companies that have used outsourcing, he says, even though the company she profits from has done the same. She promotes an increase in the minimum wage, but Trek benefits from foreign labor that averages $2 an hour. Finally, he says, she has attacked corporate tax loopholes, but Trek hasn’t paid corporate taxes. Of course, that’s because, like many companies, Trek pays taxes as an S corporation, whereby shareholders pay its federal tax via their own individual returns—a point Republicans know well because it’s part of their argument for lowering personal income tax rates. 

“I’m fine with a company that pays taxes via an S corp,” Walker says. “But she went after corporate tax breaks. One of her ads says ‘corporate tax breaks’— well, that’s interesting, considering her company hasn’t paid corporate income taxes since 1982. That’s not saying she doesn’t pay taxes. She pays them a different way.”

This is slicing the bratwurst awful thin. What’s beneath all of this is the Republican strategy to depress turnout in Burke’s base. Wisconsin is a polarized state (read Craig Gilbert’s masterful in-depth analysis here), and in a nonpresidential year, the number of swing voters in the middle is likely to be low. Walker, who has been through three elections and won a bruising recall fight, is well-known to everyone—which makes it harder to change perceptions about him. Burke, however, is not well-known. Almost 50 percent of voters said they had no opinion of her in the latest Marquette University poll. That means Walker has an opportunity to define her, and if he can do it in a way that weakens her standing with her working-class base, that lowers enthusiasm on the Democratic side. “In that environment, you can see how attacks on Mary Burke become very attractive,” says political scientist Charles Franklin, who administers the Marquette poll. 

Burke, who is nearly a political novice (her only previous elected office is a seat on the Madison school board), sticks up for her dad’s company and appeals to hometown pride. She said in an interview that she finds it “ironic that you have a sitting governor dragging a homegrown Wisconsin business through the mud when they employ nearly 1,000 people here and have been a great company since my dad founded it nearly 40 years ago. I’m really proud of the company and proud of my role in the company. I want to be a governor who celebrates the successes in Wisconsin regardless of people’s political leanings.”

Walker is no longer running the controversial ads and is now attacking Burke for her record as commerce secretary under his predecessor. Maybe he is backing off under pressure, or maybe he’s already done the damage he needs to do. The last major poll of the race, showing a tie, came out before the controversy; the next one comes out at the end of August. Then we’ll know if Walker’s gambit worked—or the race will still be tied, and we’ll know that the race will get even more heated.