POSTED: 3:04 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014
MADISON, Wis. » Three years after stripping public employee unions of the right to collectively bargain, Gov. Scott Walker began this election year by introducing workers who had found jobs since he took office. A dozen stood with him in the State Capitol, dressed for the workplace: a nursing assistant, an accountant, a maintenance technician at Milwaukee Valve.
"These are the faces of an improving economy in our state," said Walker in his recent State of the State speech, as news of an unexpected budget surplus was finally driving his approval rating over 50 percent during a tumultuous first term. "Wisconsin is going back to work."
And with that election-year message, he was off last week to Dallas to collect contributions at the home of real estate billionaire Harlan Crow -- a testament to the national profile his anti-union efforts, tax cuts and victory in a bitter recall election have gained him with major Republican donors.
Walker is one of eight Republican governors facing re-election who swept into office in 2010 in states that President Barack Obama won two years earlier, driven by the Tea Party at the height of its influence. Obama clawed back in 2012 to win each state again.
Two of the eight, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, so far do not have competitive opponents. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and Gov. Paul R. Le Page of Maine look more vulnerable with low favorability ratings.
But perhaps the most closely watched races will be in four Northern industrial states whose white working-class voters were once solidly Democratic but are now up for grabs. Besides Walker, the Rustbelt Four are Govs. Rick Snyder of Michigan, John R. Kasich of Ohio and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.
Their aging industrial economies lag behind the rest of the nation. But compared with 2010, when recession-era unemployment spiked near double digits, the improved jobs picture in all four states will buff the incumbents' images. Organized labor, fighting in its traditional heartland, has identified the four as top targets this year.
How the governors fare will say a lot about whether their conservative policies provide a template for their party's ability to appeal to independents and wavering Democrats in 2016, or whether those voters can be coaxed back to the Democrats.
Walker argues that Wisconsin offers a lesson to his party nationally.
"The perception of many across America is Republicans in Washington are the party of 'no,' they're just against things," he said in an interview. "We shouldn't be about austerity. We should be about reform. We should spell out a clear message about how we're going to reform things. I think what voters are hungry for in battleground states is leadership."
Walker's likely Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, argues that his claims of rebuilding the state's job market are smoke and mirrors.
"The fact is we've actually been creating jobs at a slower rate than all of our neighbors," she said.
The governor's job-creation claims are at risk of being turned against him: He promised 250,000 new jobs in his first term, compared with about 100,000 created to date, and one of those who joined him on the podium in the State Capitol proved an embarrassment when he turned out to be a registered sex offender.
In all, there are 37 governor's races this year, a map that is friendly to Democrats.
"The one thing we know is Democrats are going to pick up seats," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Maybe not as many as they like."
National Democratic groups hope to take back the four executive mansions held by Rust Belt Republicans by attacking on social and economic issues -- the incumbents' cuts to education, their opposition to raising the minimum wage and abortion restrictions they signed into law.
"They've all fostered hostility and divisiveness despite running as moderate technocrats," said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, which bought its first television ads of the 2014 cycle in Michigan, attacking Snyder. "On the economy, they gave huge tax cuts to the wealthiest and corporations. They paid for it by raising middle-class taxes, and because that wasn't enough, they cut education."
Walker's bitter 2011 showdown with the unions made him a national figure. He remains a hero of the Republican grass roots and a favorite of wealthy donors like billionaire David H. Koch, who founded a nonprofit group that contributed heavily to the governor's campaign to avoid a recall. That appeal to the party's base and its donor class has some conservative pundits and strategists banging the drum for a presidential bid.
Walker, who insists that his focus is on 2014, seems to gain in stature each day that enthusiasm for Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., ebbs in the scandal over the closing of bridge lanes.
But Walker has also helped polarize his battleground state. A Marquette University Law School poll last month showed his job approval reaching a high - of just 51 percent.
Democrats are hoping that Burke, a former state commerce secretary and Trek bicycle executive, can rival the governor on business credibility and present a contrast on social issues. In the poll, Burke trailed 47 percent to 41 percent.
The law that Republicans forced through to weaken teachers' and other public workers' unions, she argued, hurt the economy, slowing job creation.
While Walker has rarely compromised with Democrats, Kasich of Ohio and Snyder of Michigan have sometimes defied their Republican-led legislatures. Kasich made headlines in October by finding a way to circumvent conservative lawmakers and expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, criticizing fellow Republicans for a lack of compassion.
Even the Democratic mayor of Columbus recently said Republicans should consider Kasich as presidential material.
Like other incumbents, he has a hefty fundraising edge over his Democratic opponent, Ed FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and the executive of Cuyahoga County.
But Democrats believe that recent poor economic news strengthens their hand. The state is one of only four in the country whose economy is not expanding, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. In January, about 10,000 Ohioans lost food stamps after failing to meet a work requirement the governor imposed.
"If you're concerned about the poor, the weakest among them, you don't go down the path this governor has," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
In Michigan, Snyder's approval nose-dived last winter after he signed a law handed up by the Legislature to restrict labor unions, according to polls conducted by EPIC/MRA. But he has rebounded and led by a small margin in a September poll against his Democratic opponent, Mark Schauer.
Snyder cast himself as "one tough nerd" in 2010, a nonideological technocrat.
He has put in place an emergency manager to take Detroit through its bankruptcy struggle. If he can win 20 percent of that city's voters, "it would be game over," said Susan J. Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.
Schauer, a former congressman from Battle Creek who is little known in southeast Michigan, introduced himself in the Detroit media market through the recent ads paid for with $1 million from the Democratic Governors Association.
Pennsylvania is the Rust Belt state where Democrats have the greatest prospects.
Corbett, who has a transportation law that finances bridges and highways to his credit but has failed to advance other parts of his agenda, suffered from a job approval of just 23 percent in recent Franklin & Marshall College Poll.
Allyson Y. Schwartz, a congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs who is an early favorite among seven Democrats seeking Corbett's job, criticized the governor for failing to better regulate natural gas drilling, cutting education money and dragging his heels on Medicaid expansion.
"The people are so ready for a change," she said.
If the other Republicans in the Rust Belt are trying to moderate their message, Walker in Wisconsin argues that independent voters do not want Republicans to move to the center.
It is the lesson he draws from the unusual 2012 electoral year in Wisconsin. In June, Walker won his recall election by 7 percentage points. A few months later Obama carried the state by the same 7 points. The governor calls these "Obama-Walker voters," independents who voted for both.
"I argue the way you win the center, which is key to winning battleground states, is not to run to the center; it's to lead, it's to be bold," he said.
Burke, his opponent, has a different view of the Obama-Walker voters: They lean Democratic but thought Walker deserved to complete his term.
"We're fair-minded in Wisconsin," she said. "There used to be more working across the aisle, finding common ground. I believe we can get back to that."