Ideological Differences May Turn The Governor's Race in Wisconsin

Jul 8, 2014

The candidates for Wisconsin governor have been busy – pinpointing how they differ.

Gov. Scott Walker and his likely Democratic opponent Mary Burke

Political observers say they expect more of the same, because the race appears extremely tight.

Polls show Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his likely Democratic opponent Mary Burke, in a virtual dead heat. The key to winning might be convincing voters to care about the differences.

Gov. Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke seem to differ on most issues. For instance, mining. Walker approved changes to state rules, to help Gogebic Taconite open a huge iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

“We’re talking about 3,000 jobs NorthStar Economics estimates, related to construction statewide, about 2,800 jobs permanently. That’s about $1.5 billion impact on Wisconsin’s economy, it has a tremendous, tremendous impact,” Walker says.

Burke recently stated her opposition to the mine, saying the state’s new rules don’t adequately protect natural resources and public health. On the topic of education, Burke wants to pump more money into public schools and pull back on the state Choice or voucher program.

“What I want to see is initiatives and programs that are actually based on research and success that’s going to improve education, instead of saying our answer is to roll out a voucher program that actually has no research that shows it’s going to improve student learning,” Burke says.

The governor oversaw the expansion of Choice Schools, statewide. He insists more parents should be able to select the school best suited for their kids.

The candidates will point out more stark differences between them, as we near Election Day, according to John McAdams. He’s a political scientist at Marquette University. McAdams says the contenders must also convince voters in this closely-divided state, that the differences are crucial.

“If there’s any asymmetry of enthusiasm, if either Scott Walker supporters or Mary Burke supporters are perceptibly less enthusiastic about the candidate, that minor difference in turnout could decide the election, so we’re going to see a clear-cut choice between a liberal and a conservative,” McAdams says.

Yet McAdams expects the top issue, to be one not particularly identified as liberal or conservative – job creation. He predicts it will sway many voter opinions. Ever since Walker took office in 2011, he has insisted that the best way to grow jobs, is to offer tax incentives to businesses.

“I think the $25 million we’re talking about in the economic development tax credits are a much broader basis for us attracting businesses in, it would apply both to existing businesses that want to expand,” Walker says.

Today, the governor says he wants to continue easing the tax burden on employers. Burke says her main jobs plan is to pump money into industry clusters.

“Whether it’s advanced manufacturing, agriculture or tourism but we also have emerging clusters that we have to make sure grow, and that means you’re not helping just specific companies, but the whole industry, Burke says.

“I don’t think there’s any question it will be job growth, or the lack of job growth," says Dennis Riley, a political science professor at UW-Stevens Point. He too believes the biggest issue in the governor’s race will be jobs and the economy. And he expects Burke to pound on the governor’s 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 private sector jobs in four years. Wisconsin is not yet half way there.

“It’s not that there are no new jobs, and I know he’ll continue to say we have a lot more jobs than we did in 2009, and that’s certainly true, in the depth of the recession, we were a lot worse off than we are now. What he’s going to have to defend is his claim that we would be dramatically better off by this point,” Riley says.

Riley and Marquette’s John McAdams think the governor will mount an equally vigorous defense.

“We already know the shape of the Scott Walker counterattack. That is, accusing Mary Burke, as part of the Jim Doyle administration, of losing jobs in Wisconsin,” McAdams says.

Special interests are also expected to spend millions to convince people to vote, and to sway the slice that may be undecided.