Scott Walker's Ugly Re-Election

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's re-election campaign might offer a preview of 2016. It's not going so well.
With 2016 in mind. 

In most of the states with competitive elections this week, voter anger is directed at President Barack Obama. Republicans are motivated to vote against him, while Democrats are apathetic or demoralized.

In Wisconsin, on the other hand, there's still a lot of liberal passion directed against Republican Governor Scott Walker. Walker took a state with a history of progressive politics, weakened its public-sector unions and, perhaps most infuriatingly for liberals, narrowly survived a recall attempt in 2012. The intense opposition to Walker during his re-election campaign this year -- the most recent poll shows him leading his Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, by only 2 percentage points -- has Republicans nervous.

Wisconsin is an outlier in another respect, too: It's the only place in the country this year where a potential Republican presidential candidate is in a close race. Walker's narrow re-election campaign this year could end up shaping a 2016 bid for the White House.

For one thing, Walker's struggle raises the question of whether a politician can make a credible run for the presidency after barely winning over his own state's voters. The last two presidents each won their states convincingly before they ran. George W. Bush won 68 percent of the vote to be re-elected governor of Texas in 1998, and Barack Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Illinois to become a senator in 2004.

Walker, assuming he wins, won't have numbers anywhere close to those. And if he decides to seek the 2016 nomination, he'll have to make the best of it. The argument he could make to Republicans nationwide is that he took risks to get conservative reforms enacted in a liberal state, and he succeeded. The closeness of his recall campaign and his re-election are a testament, he could say, to his boldness.

There's another way Walker is different from Bush and Obama. Bush said he would be a "uniter, not a divider," and Obama said he'd "change the tone" in Washington for the better. A candidate as demonstrably polarizing as Walker -- his anti-union reforms sparked huge protests and an occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol -- won't be able to run that kind of campaign.

Given that the Bush-Obama promises didn't pan out, though, maybe that's for the best.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Timothy Lavin at

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