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Democrats Want to Beat Scott Walker. But the Wisconsin Economy Is a Hurdle.

RACINE, Wis. — This city’s downtown was all but empty on a recent Sunday afternoon, but one storefront office was so packed with Democrats that people had to wait outside.

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Democrats Want to Beat Scott Walker. But the Wisconsin Economy Is a Hurdle.
Monica Davey
Nelson D. Schwartz, New York Times

RACINE, Wis. — This city’s downtown was all but empty on a recent Sunday afternoon, but one storefront office was so packed with Democrats that people had to wait outside.

One by one, the party’s top Wisconsin candidates took a microphone and fixated on a single villain — a Republican who drew jeers from the campaign volunteers preparing to make phone calls and walk door to door with clipboards and pleas for votes.

The target? Not President Donald Trump, who drew only passing mention. It was Scott Walker, the state’s governor. His eight years in office are the Democrats’ greatest weapon this fall, even as his economic record has become their greatest complication.

“Forty days is not enough to talk about all the awful things Scott Walker’s done,” Mandela Barnes, the Democrats’ nominee for lieutenant governor, called out.

Randy Bryce, a mustachioed former ironworker who hopes to seize the seat that House Speaker Paul Ryan is leaving, mocked the “Scott-holes” that he said plague Wisconsin’s roads.

And Tony Evers, a grandfatherly-looking state schools superintendent who is running against Walker, said that it was high time they hold the governor accountable for cuts to schools, rising health care costs and a state economy that may look dazzling in headlines but, Evers says, doesn’t always feel that way to residents.

Wisconsin, which had not picked a Republican for president since 1984, shocked the country in 2016 by backing Trump. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise: Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature were re-elected in 2014 after slashing taxes, and many Republicans, independents and even some fiscally-minded Democrats saw benefit in a firmer line on the size and costs of government, not to mention lower tax bills.

But now there’s a rising debate over whether this state needs more than Walker’s unbending rectitude. One question for Democrats is whether they can successfully make an economic argument at a time when Wisconsin’s economic indicators are strong. By most metrics, Wisconsin’s economy is doing well. At 3 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is well below the national average of 3.7 percent.

Nationally, Democratic leaders are watching Wisconsin closely, in part to understand how to run against a relatively upbeat economy, and in part for lessons for winning back the state in the 2020 presidential election.

As in other once-blue states, the Trump victory in Wisconsin led to new energy among Democrats this year, turning a state Supreme Court seat over to a liberal candidate, electing Democrats in special elections to two state legislative seats that had long been held by Republicans, and drawing a higher primary election voter turnout in August than the Republicans saw.

But for the moment, just like party candidates in some other places, many Wisconsin Democrats are running hard against Walker and the Republican establishment that has moved the state firmly to the right, and less overtly against Trump. Part of it is calculation: Avoid alienating independent voters who may have voted for Trump.

Kriss Marion, an organic vegetable farmer and Democrat who is running for a Wisconsin state Senate seat that Democrats have targeted as one they might flip, said the president’s name rarely comes up when she is knocking at doors in the small towns and rural, rolling hills of her senate district, which Trump won in 2016.

“I would never bring that up,” she said. “I think it’s a distraction.”

After years of setbacks, including a failed effort to remove Walker in a recall election, Wisconsin Democrats’ dreams are suddenly vast. They hope not only to hold onto Tammy Baldwin’s U.S. Senate seat but to win the governor’s office and control of the state Senate. With redistricting and advantages going into the 2020 presidential race at stake, Democrats have fielded candidates for more state legislative seats than in recent memory.

But the Democrats’ most challenging problem may not be on the ballot.

“Wisconsin is working,” Walker told reporters about the economy, after a campaign event not long ago. “Democrats are trying to tell something to people that’s not true with what they actually know and see.”

He added: “We can’t afford to turn around now.”

— A ‘Blue Wave’ Meets Scott Walker

For months, as Wisconsin residents debated the possibility of a “blue wave” of Democratic votes on Election Day, one unlikely voice has repeatedly warned that it could happen: Scott Walker himself.

Walker, who is 50 and seeking a third term in a state where nearly everyone already has an opinion of him, rocked up and down in his sneakers the other day as he waited for his introduction at the edge of a stage in Burlington. He looked impatient to get to work.

Wearing an Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers jersey, Walker told the crowd of supporters something that most of them might have argued with had it come from anyone else.

The polls show a tight race, Walker warned the crowd, and they should be believed.

“Don’t explain the polls by saying they’re wrong,” he said. “Explain the polls by saying that’s all the motivation we need to talk to more voters.”

“The only way we fail to win,” he said, “is if the truth gets blurred over.”

Last week, the Marquette Law School Poll found Walker 1 percentage point ahead of Evers among likely voters. The poll showed Baldwin with a 10-point lead in her Senate race against Leah Vukmir, a Republican ally of Walker from the Legislature.

Walker, a former lawmaker and county executive who ran for president briefly and knows Wisconsin politics like few others, has countered shows of mounting Democratic strength with a fierce, unrelenting campaign: The state Republican Party ran an ominous-sounding ad accusing Evers, in his role as a schools leader, of failing to properly discipline teachers accused of sexual misconduct; the Republicans have issued sharp warnings that Democrats would return the state to days of high taxes and budget deficits; and, most of all, Walker ticks off Wisconsin’s economic successes every chance he gets.

In addition to the state’s 3 percent unemployment rate, wage growth is picking up speed after lagging the rest of the country for much of 2016 and 2017. Average hourly earnings in the state are up 5 percent from a year ago, compared with a 2.9 percent increase nationally.

“It’s hard to argue we need a change economically as people are doing well,” said Noah Williams, director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy at the University of Wisconsin — Madison.

The turnaround was a long time coming, however. The state lost more than 175,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010 and it took until 2015 for total employment to get back to where it had been before the recession.

One of Walker’s campaign promises during his initial run for governor in 2010 was to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, which ended in early 2015. He reached that goal in April 2018, more than seven years after taking office.

“Most people feel that the state is really doing well,” said Rosanne Hahn, a retired teacher who conferred with Walker outside his Burlington event and said she plans to vote for him. “A lot of times there are many jobs and people won’t take them,” Hahn said.

— Running against the Walker economy Evers, 66, was a teacher and principal before he became the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, and he looks the part — a pen at the ready in his dress shirt pocket, a flop of white hair and a gentle smile.

His name is widely known in the state, but his political style is factual and bland, a concern for some Democratic voters who say they wonder whether a more inspirational candidate could better seize the political moment. But some strategists say Evers, who won the nomination in a wide field of primary candidates, is a safe, ideal choice for keeping the focus not on himself — but on Walker’s legacy.

By Evers’ telling, the state’s economic picture may be the centerpiece of Walker’s campaign, but that doesn’t make it a less potent argument for the Democrats — largely, he says, because people don’t feel like things are as upbeat as the statistics imply.

“He can talk about the unemployment rate until the cows come home,” Evers said in an interview. “Most people are just scraping by, so that doesn’t mean anything to them. Many of the people that are employed are having to get two or three jobs just make ends meet. Also, we’re in a state that people are leaving because of the decisions he has made. There’s a lot of data out there other than the unemployment rate.”

This is how Wisconsin Democrats are pivoting from a strict economic pitch to a case that may be easier to make: They say that Walker’s political philosophy has starved Wisconsin of money for needed services.

When Walker first entered office, he cut spending on schools. Gradual increases followed and the most recent budget had an infusion of new dollars, Tamarine Cornelius, an analyst at the Wisconsin Budget Project, said. But, she added, the new funds were not enough to make up for the initial cut, after adjusting for inflation.

Aid to the state’s university system has also been cut under Walker. In the 2010-11 budget year, state funding totaled $1.179 billion. It dropped by $178 million the following year after he took office, and stood at $1.06 billion in 2017-2018.

Under Walker’s watch, the state ranked 44th in a U.S. News and World Report ranking of road quality. Adjusted for inflation, in fiscal 2019 Wisconsin’s transportation budget remains 20 percent below where it was in 2010.

Even as needed services were deprived of money, Evers says, the state was agreeing to a deal that would provide $3 billion in tax credits so that Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics company, could build a campus in Southeast Wisconsin. “We’re starving the school systems but giving this Hail Mary version of economic development with one company?” Evers said. “It’s a terrible deal.”

Around the state, Democrats said they had not felt the benefit of the state’s impressive economic statistics. Manufacturing plays an outsize role here; the factory sector is responsible for 18.6 percent of economic output, compared with 11.7 percent for the United States as a whole. Nearly half a million Wisconsin residents work in manufacturing, up 24,000 since the beginning of 2017, but still shy of the total before the recession.

“Whoopee!” Denis Olson, who is 62 and fixes tractors, said of the state’s low unemployment rate. “If you’re looking for a job for a buck over minimum wage you can find them. Every low-paying job is hiring, but who can live on that?” — The State Senate up for Grabs?

In Blanchardville, a village of just more than 800 people, homecoming royalty and homemade floats rolled down Main Street on a sunny, windy Saturday not long ago. One float bore a canoe and a sign that read “Come Hell or High Water,” an allusion to widespread and damaging flooding in parts of Wisconsin in recent months. Supporters of Marion, the Democrat running for state senator, handed out postcards with a Maple Dunker cookie recipe from Marion, who raced through the crowd in a sparkly T-shirt, shaking hands.

In a state that was once seen as mostly blue but often flipped control back and forth, Democrats view the Wisconsin Senate as one of their most winnable openings. Republicans hold control of the chamber with an 18-15 margin, and Democrats have poured attention into several seats they see as particularly competitive.

The district Marion is trying to seize from a Republican incumbent includes small towns and dairy farms in a rolling, rural section of Southwestern Wisconsin that went for Trump in 2016, but also Barack Obama before that; it’s a place strategists see as a swing district that could reflect Democrats’ strength in the state this year.

Marion, a county board member who tends a small farm with a bed-and-breakfast, drew statewide attention a few years ago as part of efforts to pass legislation that became known as the “Cookie Bill.” State law didn’t authorize bakers to sell their goods at farmers’ markets without commercial licenses, and she wanted to change that, but struggled to get anywhere with the Republican-controlled Legislature. Eventually, she was among a group that sued. A court ruling opened the way for such sales, but Marion saw the events as telling.

“How simple should that have been to get a cookie bill passed?” she said. “It was eye opening in terms of how you think you know what democracy is. I’m actually not super into baking cookies, but we just need more opportunities out here.”

Not far from Marion along Main Street, supporters of her opponent, Sen. Howard Marklein, the Republican incumbent and an accountant who grew up on a dairy farm, were handing out Packers’ game schedules and bright yellow Marklein bags to children collecting candy along the street. Marklein said that farmers are struggling but that his constituents tell him they see the state’s economy as growing and vibrant.

“I’ve knocked on thousands of doors,” Marklein said. “You talk to businesses, and these are the best years they’ve ever had.”

Still, Marion’s pitch is largely about economic survival and quality of life: Fix the roads. Expand broadband to the rural reaches. Send more money to rural schools.

Small towns are struggling, she said, with populations shrinking, schools closing and farmers wrestling with bankruptcies and a growing suicide problem.

“In towns like this, we’re on the edge all the time,” she said. “We want to stay here, but that is by no means a sure thing. It’s sort of like we’re at a crossroads. What’s going to happen?”

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