EAU CLAIRE, Wisconsin—On a portable stage in the parking lot of a strip mall in front of the Eau Claire GOP field office, sandwiched between a Curves and an Office Products Co. store, Gov. Scott Walker is keeping his chin up. After the beating he’s taken, that’s no small feat.
Walker, Wisconsin’s incumbent Republican governor, is in a tough statewide contest for the third time in four years, and this one is much closer than it was supposed to be. The Real Clear Politics polling average has Walker up by just 2.2 percentage points over Democratic nominee Mary Burke, and that number is inflated by a recent Marquette University poll nobody takes seriously that shows him with a seven-point lead. The latest data, from Public Policy Polling, has him up by just one point (well within the margin of error).
The Wisconsin governor’s race is one of the closest in the country. And, according to conversations with top Republicans and conservative activists, it’s also the single most important. Walker is revered among national conservatives for taking on Wisconsin’s powerful public sector unions at enormous political risk. A National Review cover depicted him as Perseus slaying Medusa, and the American Spectator has already declared that if he pulls off a win on Tuesday, “he’s our man” for 2016. While many of the potential Republican presidential nominees are highly polarizing for the right—Sen. Rand Paul has been in hawks’ crosshairs since Day 1, and Jeb Bush’s stances on immigration and Common Core already have Tea Party types seeing red—Walker is the rare Republican star who nobody hates. He matters so much to some Republicans that if Wisconsin’s governor loses on Tuesday night, winning the Senate would just be a consolation prize. “In my mind, if Scott Walker loses, it’s a bad election cycle even if there are big wins everywhere else,” says Phil Kerpen, who runs the fiscal conservative advocacy organization American Commitment, “because the impact on public policy will be more negative than any political upside elsewhere.”
Winning statewide as a conservative Republican in Wisconsin isn’t easy. Even though five of its eight congressmen are Republicans and the GOP controls its statehouse, Wisconsin is a very blue state. It’s historically been a union stronghold, and it hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential race since 1984. For progressives, the Republicans’ fragile hold on state government is an insult, an affront that should be corrected.
Given those realities, you might expect a Republican governor to govern coyly. Walker hasn’t. He won the 2010 gubernatorial race by 5.8 points, and in February of 2011 he proposed Act 10 to dramatically curb public sector unions’ collective bargaining power, to bar unions from automatically collecting dues from members’ paychecks, and to demand higher health insurance and pension contributions from government workers, along with a host of other changes.
The progressives’ response was immediate—and not particularly subtle. Activists camped out in the Capitol building for weeks, Democratic state lawmakers fled the state to try to prevent a vote on the bill, and national progressives charged conservatives with a “Republican jihad.” None of that worked, and Walker signed the bill on March 11.
Unions and their allies pushed back hard. They challenged the bill in court and lost, worked to vote out a conservative state Supreme Court justice and lost, tried to recall 10 Republican state Senators and lost 7 of those contests, and in 2012 tried to recall Walker and lost by 6.8 points. (Also worth noting: Republicans forced three recall elections for Democratic state senators, and Democrats won all three of those.)
So Walker and his Wisconsin allies have faced an enormous number of brutal electoral battles. But given polling, Tuesday’s gubernatorial race is Democrats’ best shot to get rid of Walker for good.
That would be a boon for Wisconsin progressives, of course, but it would also have national repercussions. A Walker loss would send the message to Republican governors across the country that if they take on unions and push for hard-hitting conservative policy overhauls, they will be punished. “If we don’t send Gov. Walker back to Madison, that sends a message to every principled conservative leader that if you stand up for your people, if you grow jobs, if you grow businesses, and you balance your budget, you won’t be rewarded,” said Rep. Sean Duffy, who spoke to a crowd of volunteers in that Eau Claire parking lot a few minutes before appearances from Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and Walker.
Walker had a slightly different tone when he took the stage a few minutes later, criticizing “Washington-based special interests.”
“What they don’t like about what we’ve done in Wisconsin is that they’re afraid, come next Tuesday, it might happen elsewhere,” he said.
So what’s Tuesday night like for national Republicans if they win the Senate but Walker loses?
“That’s not a good night,” said Priebus, speaking after the rally. “Walker represents not just the future of Wisconsin, but the future of our party and the future of people that make promises and keep promises, and whether they can be rewarded for doing those things.”
Talking up the accomplishments of Republican governors is a key part of the RNC’s messaging. Obama is hurting the country, they say, so look to states like Wisconsin and Texas to see how things go when a Republican is in charge. A Walker loss would be a frightening message for Republican governors around the country mulling Wisconsin-esque policy changes.
Kerpen argues that if unions stop Walker and his reforms, “then they would sort of strangle that in its crib, and it would end in Wisconsin.”
Patrick Gleason, the director of state affairs at Americans for Tax Reform, said a Walker loss “will scare a lot of governors across the country.”
“That will send a message: Don’t do this, because you very well might not survive,” he said. “If Walker prevails, it’s going to embolden a lot of governors and lawmakers across the country. You’re going to see a lot of governors and lawmakers in other states get spines—or get stronger spines—than they had prior to Walker’s re-election.”
Conservatives are also increasingly concerned about the verve with which prosecutors have targeted many of the GOP governors who are also potential 2016 contenders. Govs. Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and Walker have all faced legal scrutiny that conservatives charge is politically motivated. If Walker loses, they will brace themselves for broader use of “lawfare.”
But those fears weren’t on display in Eau Claire this weekend. “Wisconsin is gonna save America!” Duffy yelled as he rallied the crowd in the parking lot.
Walker has to get re-elected first.