In Scott Walker race, he's the main issue

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Posted: Oct 01, 2014 3:46 PM
In Scott Walker race, he's the main issue

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The airwaves and campaign appearances in the closely contested governor's race here are bristling with charges over whether the incumbent did enough to create jobs in the state and whether the challenger is an out-of-touch liberal, and other arguments designed to sway opinions before Election Day.

There's just one complication. For nearly everyone in Wisconsin, the only issue is Scott Walker. And almost every voter already knows whether they love him or hate him.

While there are 36 governors' races on the ballot across the country this fall, Wisconsin's is the rare one where the campaign seems almost moot with weeks to go, the undecided are almost nonexistent and the ground to be won hard to find.

The odd condition testifies to the traumatic way the conservative reform movement played out in Wisconsin after Republicans won power across the Midwest in 2010. The years since have not assuaged bitter feelings left from massive protests, a recall election and the smashing defeat of new governor Walker's opponents.

A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed Walker with a slight 5.8-point lead over Democratic challenger Mary Burke, just beyond the poll's 4.1-point margin of error. It marked the first time since March that either candidate had an edge larger than the margin of error. Only 5 percent were undecided or said they would vote for someone other than Walker or Burke.

In a typical race, about 10 percent of voters are undecided, said Bill Christopherson, a Democratic strategist with nearly 30 years' experience.

"I've never seen one where no one was undecided," Christopherson said. "Apparently they're not persuadable unless something happens to change the dynamic."

The Marquette poll showed an equal number of registered voters — 47 percent — had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Walker. Only 6 percent had no opinion.

The politician who stirs such emotions is relatively mild mannered — not brash like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or effusive like former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Even in private emails released in recent court proceedings, Walker doesn't deviate from the G-rated language of the Eagle Scout and small town preacher's son he is.

"He is Wisconsin nice," said Republican strategist Mark Graul. "He's like a lot of people you know who are your neighbors and friends."

But Walker's Boy Scout manner only seems to rankle his detractors more.

"It doesn't really matter what his demeanor is. He's not trustworthy," said Madison artist Diana Lakes, who is among those who see Walker as a right-wing ideologue and tool of the Koch Brothers.

"I can't stand Scott Walker," said Democratic voter Ilana Pestcoe, 55, an occupational therapist from the small village of Gays Mills near the Iowa border. Pestcoe said she "doesn't love Mary Burke," but that "the alternative is horror."

Other conservatives who won office in 2010 also promoted pro-business policies, cut budgets and challenged organized labor. But Walker's decision to ram his plan through in a matter of weeks, before his opponents and others got used to the idea, has helped make this election a one-man referendum.

What Walker's detractors hate about him is what his admirers like the most: his sheer confidence.

"I think there's a lot of politicians that say they're going to do something, but when he says it he does it," said Marian Krumberger, a retired social worker, of Green Bay.

"He's very genuine. He's not artificial," she said. "I don't think it creates a divide, it's more of a unifying factor."

In his first term Walker addressed a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall in part by ending public employee bargaining rights. He also pushed through a long list of GOP priorities including concealed carry, expanded school vouchers, tighter abortion restrictions and less stringent environmental regulations for a mining project.

Walker said he thinks any persuadable voters would be interested in his second-term plans to cut income and property taxes, freeze college tuition, and require drug testing for welfare and unemployment applicants.

"They want action. They don't want the gridlock you see in Washington," Walker said in an interview.

Burke and Walker have spent much of the summer arguing over his inability to create the 250,000 private sector jobs he promised. Both national parties and major independent groups are spending heavily on the race. In one week alone in September, the Republican Governors Association and the NRA ran $525,000 in ads for Walker. First Lady Michelle Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were stumping in the state on Monday.

Burke, a former executive for Trek Bicycles, a company founded by her father, argues that she has better training for managing the state's economy, which is still hampered by lost manufacturing jobs.

"Wisconsin has everything it takes to be a thriving, top ten economy, but under Governor Walker, we're lagging behind," Burke said in a statement.

The race likely will come down to which side can turn out its base better, both Graul and Christopherson said.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP