Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is betting that his conservative credentials and his years as a purple-state governor can put him in the top tier of Republican presidential contenders. But could his struggles to win re-election in Wisconsin weaken him for 2016?
A Marquette University poll released Wednesday showed Walker with just a 3.4% lead among registered voters over his Democratic challenger Mary Burke, a political neophyte. That’s well within the margin of error, and essentially unchanged from three months ago. Among likely voters, Walker actually trails by 2 points.
Respondents were contacted last Thursday through Sunday — a bumpy few days for the governor. On Friday, newly released documents showed Walker’s campaign pushing donors to give money to a conservative group with close ties to his recall efforts. Two days later, news broke that Walker’s campaign received a $20,000 donation from the owners of a company a Walker-led board approved to receive millions of dollars in tax credits.
There’s no doubt Walker is in real trouble. Burke has hammered the governor on Wisconsin’s lackluster economic growth during his tenure, and even conservative supporters are asking for a more detailed second-term agenda. But as long as he pulls out a win, even a narrow one, Walker should remain viable with the kind of Republican power players likely to help determine the next presidential nominee.
“I think it’s a matter of winning,” said William Kilberg, a longtime national GOP super donor. “If he can win [in Wisconsin], given the opposition he’s faced and the money that has been poured into those races against him, then he’s a serious contender.”
Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette Law School Poll, agreed. “I think a win is a win, especially given relatively even divisions in the state,” Franklin said via email.
And allegations that Walker played fast and loose with campaign finance rules, or took money from companies that benefited from his policies, aren’t likely to be a potent line of attack in a Republican presidential primary.
“In recent years, Republican politicians have been very reluctant to do anything that sounds like campaign finance reform or criticizing people for receiving ‘x’ amount of dollars from a donor,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political analysis website.
Documents released Friday in connection with a now-halted state investigation into alleged coordination between Walker’s political campaigns and conservative interest groups show the governor personally soliciting millions of dollars in contributions for the Wisconsin Club for Growth. One secret $700,000 contribution came from a mining company, Gogebic Taconic, that was looking to develop a controversial open-pit mine. Walker has supported a massive rollback of state environmental regulations that would allow Gogebic to develop the mine.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday that the owners of Ashley Furniture gave a total of $20,000 to Friends of Scott Walker just over two weeks after the state business development board voted to give the company a $6 million, even as it plans to slash its workforce in the state.
Walker has repeatedly denied that any of his campaign fundraising or cozy relationships with conservative and business groups are inappropriate or illegal. And a spokesman for the prosecutor who was leading the probe, which a court could re-start, has said Walker isn’t a target.
But, politics aside, Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group dedicated to investigating dark money in politics, said a Walker re-election win could mark the start of a new era in electoral politics, one that is even less accountable to voters than now.
“Walker epitomizes a new breed of politician who prefers to be funded by anonymous, deep-pocketed donors,” Bottari said. “And there is no way for the public to understand if that’s okay or if that’s illegitimate or corrupt until those people’s identities are disclosed.”