MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats say they are increasingly optimistic about their chances of knocking off Republican Gov. Scott Walker next year, even though a top-tier candidate has yet to emerge and they're still recovering from a devastating 2016 election.
Democrats gathering this weekend for their state convention say liberals are energized in opposition both to President Donald Trump and to Republicans like Walker closely tied to him. Walker's approval rating has been below 50 percent since early 2014.
"I think there's a ton of opportunity for Democrats," said Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor. "What we need to do is have a bold, inspiring agenda."
Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since 1984, with a narrow 23,000-vote victory that was the third-closest of any state he won. In that same election, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson outperformed Trump on his way to a surprising re-election win against former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
While Democrats are looking for a candidate to take on Walker in 2018, they also have to defend the Senate seat held by Tammy Baldwin. And they must rebuild a weakened infrastructure that has suffered repeated losses against Walker. His campaign operation was molded in part by Trump's chief of staff, Reince Priebus, when he was state party chairman before leading the Republican National Committee.
Walker, who remains popular with his Republican base, has all but announced his re-election bid, saying he's "ready" for another four years and questioning why he wouldn't run again — given a bevy of positive economic data, including a 17-year low state unemployment rate.
His state budget proposal also is designed to give him something else positive to run on, with proposed funding boosts for K-12 schools and higher education after years of cuts.
Walker's list of accomplishments as governor is long. He's known best nationally for a measure ending collecting bargaining for Wisconsin's public workers, spurring an unsuccessful attempt to recall him in 2012.
He also has worked with the Republican-controlled Legislature over the past seven years to enact a host of other conservative priorities. Those include requiring photo identification to vote; making the state right-to-work; legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons; making abortions more difficult to obtain; expanding school choice programs; freezing University of Wisconsin tuition; and cutting taxes by nearly $5 billion.
Walker's critics say his agenda has devastated public education, severely harmed worker rights and wages, removed protections for the most vulnerable and weakened the state's economy. While unemployment is low, Wisconsin lags its Midwest neighbors in private sector job creation, and Walker has yet to hit the promise he made in 2010 to add 250,000 private-sector jobs.
But it's vital that Democrats have their own message rather than just running as counter to the Trump-Walker Republicans, said Joe Zepecki, a strategist who worked for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke in 2014.
"All of the makings are there for a really good year for Democrats if we can walk and chew gum at the same time," Zepecki said.
Republicans cast the Democratic Party as in a state of disarray, frequently citing decisions by several potential candidates not to take on Walker, including Rep. Ron Kind, venture capitalist Mark Bakken and Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling.
"Wisconsin is a top 10 state for business and education with an unemployment rate at its lowest point since 2000, so it's no surprise that serious Democrats are refusing to run against Wisconsin's comeback," said Walker's campaign manager Joe Fadness
Milwaukee businessman and political newcomer Andy Gronik and state Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire, are two of the most frequently discussed possible candidates. At least a half-dozen more are possible.
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said the ultimate candidate is the least important factor for Democrats now. More important, he said, is crafting the message to tap into the unhappiness with Trump and Walker.
"We have to have a message that speaks to people who have been left out of the mix," Maslin said. "That's why Trump won. We have to talk change and speak to why we are going to upset the status quo."
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