HUDSON, Wisconsin – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are walking side by side through Empire Buckets, marveling as the workers shape and weld giant pieces of metal into rounded containers for industrial material.
“This could be on ‘Dirty Jobs’ – you know, that cable show?” Walker says to Christie. Christie nods and smiles.
After the tour, the two men stop to hold a press conference in front of one of the outfit’s smaller vessels; it’s still taller than a person.
“That’s a big boy, let me tell ya,” one of the workers tells the two Republican governors. The bucket is big, Christie and Walker both agree.
Christie has traveled from New Jersey to this small town on the Minnesota border to help Walker in his close fight for reelection. There’s a certain level of irony – and magnanimity – associated with the visit. If Walker beats Democratic challenger Mary Burke this November, Walker -- revered by conservatives for his successful take down of public employee unions -- will be further lionized on the right, and catapulted straight into Christie’s path to the 2016 presidential nomination.
If Walker loses -- polls show a tight race with Burke -- his national hopes would be dashed.
“Last week alone, down in the crossing down at Green Bay, two of the national big government union bosses were in this state, and you know what they said?” Walker said. “We’re the number one target. We’re the number one target.”
On this visit, Christie is playing the role of attack dog, going after Burke over plagiarism in her jobs plan; a consultant working on her campaign included word-for-word passages that appeared in the jobs plans of other Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
“If you can’t trust her honesty and her integrity when she tells you that this is her plan, why would you trust her honesty and integrity about anything else she tells you?” Christie said during a press conference after the bucket factory tour.
For Walker, Christie’s presence has added the value of attracting attention from press in the nearby Twin Cities; the TV stations and papers in Minneapolis and St. Paul usually ignore the Wisconsin governor, Walker says, because most of their viewers live in Minnesota.
The race in Wisconsin in 2014 is the latest evidence that the state remains as polarized as ever. Since taking office in early 2011, Walker has rammed through a succession of conservative policies that (most egregiously, Democrats believe) included eliminating collective bargaining for public sector employees. Those efforts led to a recall election against Walker in 2012 which he won handily, but which left the state even more angry and divided.
The result, Walker acknowledges, is an electorate with almost no middle.
“For years it was kind of a 40-40-20 state: 40% leaned to the left, 40% kind of leaned to the right and about 20% were in the middle. That middle has shrunk a little bit,” he said.
Try a lot: Polls show that only about 4% of voters are undecided at this point in the race.
That’s the climate that surrounds an investigation into Walker’s political fundraising.
Walker had insisted that a federal judge had halted the probe. But a lawsuit from the Wisconsin Club for Growth was just kicked back into state court after a federal panel ruled that the state could keep looking into illegally coordination with Walker’s campaign.
Walker insists he never raised funds improperly.
“Yes,” he told msnbc when asked if he was 100% comfortable that he and his aides followed the spirit of the law.
It’s all playing out against a national backdrop: Walker’s reelection fight has turned into a test of whether aggressive conservative governance can win Republicans elections in purple states – or whether going too far will backfire. And that explains a lot about why Christie, who rode to a whopping re-election win last year in an otherwise blue state -- is here.
“One last test everybody – one last test – because they’re testing you this time too, and what they want to do is make an example of him to other governors around the country,” Christie said.
Democrats' last hope
"Mary, Mary, Mary," Burke's supporters are chanting, waiting for their candidate to step into the Brown County Democratic headquarters not far from Lambeau Field, the revered home of the Green Bay Pakers. (Sitting on the tables are handy pocket-sized schedules for Badgers and Packers football games this fall, branded "Mary Burke for Governor.")
It's a Tuesday afternoon, but the room is packed. The crowd runs the gamut from a woman wearing peace sign earrings to an older gentleman who says, "If you need an ex-Marine to tell Scott Walker to go f**k himself, I'm your man." (He is not quite prepared to attach his name to that quote in print.)
Burke had campaigned earlier in the week with first lady Michelle Obama, drawing more than two thousand people -- and highlighting how the race has become, with a dwindling population of independents, an exercise in exciting base voters. Burke channeled that boundless excitement at her Green Bay event.
"We have given Gov. Walker four seasons. It's time for a new coach and a new game plan!" she says, one of several football metaphors that pepper her brief stump speech.
In person, Burke is at once effusive and reserved, offering hugs and handshakes to supporters without straying far from talking points. Before an interview in the back warehouse of a toy store piled high with stacks of colored paper and Playmobil sets, Burke mentions the amount of time that's passed since she announced her campaign in a way that seems almost weary.
"A long time," she says. "Over a year now."
Burke isn't running in the traditional, pro-labor mold that Democrats in Wisconsin tried against Walker during the recall. Instead, she's focusing on her experience running the family business, Trek Bicycles.
"This divisiveness that we have seen is not who we are in Wisconsin and we don't have to have that here -- there is a different way of leading this forward," she says.
Trek made her a millionaire -- and that's prompted attacks from Walker that sound almost as though they came straight out of the handbook that President Barack Obama used against Mitt Romney in 2012.
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your fortune grow?" asks one ad. "By making millions of dollars … sending jobs overseas that could have been done in Wisconsin."
The Wall Street Journal called the strategy "economic populism [that] is usually the provide of Democrats who don't understand how free markets work or who cynically hope to exploit voters' insecurities."
In the past week, though, the focus has shifted to Burke's jobs plan, a document she says she spent hundreds of hours preparing but that includes, verbatim, some sections of jobs plans promulgated by other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls. Walker's campaign is up with a harsh new ad showing her struggling to answer a question about what plagiarism is.
Burke says it's a distraction and notes that the political consultant who wrote the plan is no longer doing work for her campaign. "He is the one who was paid and part of the campaign to put this together -- to bring ideas and put those into the plan," she said in an interview.
Asked to identify which ideas in the plan were original to her, she said: "I would say all of them are ones that I support and that I believe are going to work here in Wisconsin."
If Burke is able to weather the attacks successfully and beat Walker in November, she would instantly become a Democratic star.
In an interview, Burke insisted that she's not aware of the broader hopes that national Democrats have pinned on her candidacy.
"I'm just focused on the race here in Wisconsin and making sure that the people of Wisconsin get to know me, my values, the type of governor that I will be and my plans for leading Wisconsin forward," she said.
But Burke told her supporters otherwise. "I am not backing down, not one inch from this," she said, "and you know why, because the future of Wisconsin is at stake and the eyes of the country are on us."