Who Will Challenge Scott Walker in 2018?

 Joe Murray  |    August 04, 2017

‚ÄúScott Walker Is a Top Target for Democrats. So Why Can‚Äôt They Find Someone to Run Against Him?‚ÄĚ This headline from the April edition of Governing Magazine illustrates the difficulty Wisconsin Democrats have had trying to recruit a top-tier candidate to run against Scott Walker in next year‚Äôs gubernatorial election.

While the current list of potential candidates* includes two state legislators, the mayor of Madison, the unsuccessful candidate for Wisconsin attorney general in 2014, and two announced candidates ‚ÄĒ Andy Gronik and Bob Harlow, the list is widely regarded by political insiders as lacking someone who can mount a serious challenge to two-term incumbent Scott Walker.

The list of potentially strong candidates who have decided against running includes Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse, county executives Joe Parisi of Dane County and Jim Kreuser of Kenosha County, state Sen. Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, and former state Sen. Tim Cullen from Janesville. For a variety of reasons, these potential challengers looked at the political landscape as it is today and decided it was not a good time to get in the race.
Why did these top-tier candidates decide against running for governor in 2018? Four factors come to mind.

Three successful elections

Walker has a track record of running well-funded and extremely well-organized statewide campaigns. His political organization in Wisconsin is widely regarded as top flight, and his current position as the chair of the Republican Governor‚Äôs Association provides him with outside contacts and other advantages over his eventual opponent. As Prof. Barry Burden of UW-Madison said, ‚ÄúPeople have looked back at Walker‚Äôs three elections and seen he‚Äôs been successful in three different circumstances, and it‚Äôs hard to see how it would be different now.‚ÄĚ

History is on Walker's side

According to Smart Politics, there have been 11 two-term Wisconsin governors who ran for a third term. Nine were successful, and two were defeated for an overall success rate of 82 percent. History may not be as reliable in today’s hyper-polarized political environment, but it shouldn’t be discounted. The vast majority of two-term governors who run for a third term win in Wisconsin.

Polling numbers improve

When Gov. Walker pulled out of the presidential primary in September 2015, his job approval number in the Marquette Law School Poll stood at a dismal 37 percent. Since that time, Walker has slowly and steadily improved his standing with Wisconsin voters. In the June 2017 Marquette Poll, Walker’s job approval stood at 48 percent, an 11-point improvement. His job approval numbers are close to the magic 50 percent range that most incumbents running for reelection strive to hit. 

Fundraising machine

Scott Walker has won three consecutive statewide elections for governor. In 2010, his first successful race, he raised $11 million; in the 2012 recall election, he raised $37.3 million; and in the 2014 reelection campaign, he raised $34.4 million. Walker’s grand total comes to $82.7 million over three races for governor. Walker is the single most successful fundraiser in Wisconsin political history. To the extent that money is a key ingredient in successful reelection campaigns, Walker’s ability to raise campaign funds is a real advantage.

It’s still relatively early in the race for governor next year, so there’s still time for a well-known name to enter the race. If that happens, we could be in for a typically competitive Wisconsin top-of-the-ticket contest. The other factor to watch is the midterm election dynamic where the party in the White House loses seats. If Democrats run a credible candidate in a political cycle that favors their party, Gov. Walker will need all the advantages he currently enjoys to advance to a third term.

More details to come later as this race develops.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

*Tony Evers filed campaign paperwork on July 21 but had not formally announced his candidacy by July 28 when this article was published.

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