This March, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker launched what, in the post-Citizens United era, amounts to a de facto presidential exploratory campaign. He jetted to Las Vegas for a private audience with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and Republican Party kingmaker who is said to have spent nearly $150 million during the 2012 elections and may dump as much as $100 million more into this year’s midterms. It was a pinch-me moment for Walker, who in four short years had ascended from county executive to conservative hero. Inspired by his boyhood idol, Ronald Reagan, Walker took on Wisconsin’s public-employee unions and refused to buckle in the face of massive protests and a weeks-long occupation of the state Capitol. When the unions subsequently tried to oust him via a recall election, he barnstormed the state, raised a record $37 million, and won with 53 percent of the vote. Soon the preacher’s son and college dropout began appearing alongside Chris Christie and Jeb Bush on 2016 short lists.
But these days, Walker’s presidential dreams are hanging by a thread as he battles for reelection against a political neophyte whose only previous electoral campaign was a self-financed 2012 run for the local school board. Why is he vulnerable? Walker devoted his first term to ramming through a chunk of the modern conservative agenda: He limited collective-bargaining rights, slashed taxes on the wealthy, enacted new voter ID requirements, boosted funding for vouchers at the expense of public schools, curtailed abortion access, and weakened environmental protections. These policies have sharply polarized Wisconsin—splitting families, church groups, golf foursomes—with only a sliver of the electorate not firmly pro- or anti-Walker.
Mary Burke, Walker’s opponent, is running as a McKinsey moderate, the anti-politician with business savvy who will jump-start the state’s economy and heal a divided Wisconsin. She believes her pro-business message can win over those key undecided voters. In a nonpresidential year when turnout could decide the election, Burke’s strategy is a gamble—and it just might work.