Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, raced toward the recall finish line this week, each rolling toward Tuesday's election amid a blizzard of news releases and political ads.
Each was trying to shred the other's arguments like confetti, hoping to frame the campaign to his advantage, and, surprisingly, some common themes began to emerge.
For the incumbent in the historic recall, the strategy is to tout what the Walker camp calls the governor's clear success in turning around Wisconsin's economy, in balancing the budget and in creating jobs, all the while pressing a case that Barrett not only has failed to offer a plan for the state, but already has mismanaged the city he governs.
For Barrett, who has changed lines of attack multiple times as he continues to trail in all major independent polls, the course to victory seems much narrower and more difficult to negotiate. By the end of last week, the mayor had apparently found his route of no return: Barrett's closing argument is focusing directly and almost exclusively on the criminal probe surrounding the governor's former aides during Walker's tenure as Milwaukee County executive. To a far lesser degree, Barrett is promising to end Wisconsin's "civil war."
The campaign trail promises to be heavily traveled over the final days.
For his part, Walker is barnstorming the state announcing new jobs successes and business expansions. For example, on Tuesday, Walker joined Ashley Furniture executives for the groundbreaking of an 80,000-square-foot addition to its reclining-upholstery production facility in Whitehall. The expansion will double the size of the plant and create 225 jobs.
Meanwhile, Barrett hit the road with former U.S. Sen. and Democratic icon Russ Feingold. The Barrett campaign hoped to use Feingold's star power within the party to close a perceived "enthusiasm gap" between Republican and Democratic base voters.
Republican insiders sounded increasingly confident about Walker's chances. The Barrett-Feingold tour alone showed the extent to which Barrett was still trying to shore up his base at a time when he should be pursuing more moderate, independent voters. Then, too, while Barrett was the aggressor in the first of two televised debates - as he had to be - Walker made no gaffes and indeed returned the volleys to the mayor.
By week's end, some Republicans were publicly letting the pedal up just an inch in the free-media wars, calling on GOP voters to remember that Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP senators also are on Tuesday's recall ballots, though none of the Senate races is on the ballot locally.
Walker hits back on crime
In the last several weeks, Walker has faced withering attacks from Barrett and the Democratic Party about the John Doe probe being conducted by the Milwaukee County District Attorney, John Chisholm.
Walker himself has called the tack a desperate effort, since other issues have failed to give Barrett traction. Other observers have accused Chisholm, a Democrat, of being politically motivated. The lead investigator in the two-year probe, for example, has a Recall Walker sign on his lawn and a union "blue fist" poster on his front door.
Until last week, Walker was simply playing defense on the issue. But when a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found that at least 1,300 violent crimes in the city had been misreported as minor, Walker found a way to counterattack on the theme of corruption and cover-up.
On May 23, for example, the Walker camp released a new ad entitled, aptly enough, "Crime," which the campaign said sheds light on what it calls rampant misreporting of violent crime in Milwaukee on Barrett's watch.
"The widespread misreporting of violent crimes in Milwaukee is disturbing, and mayor Barrett owes his constituents an explanation," Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said in announcing the release of the ad. "Mayor Barrett has failed the people of Milwaukee yet again, and an independent investigation should begin immediately to determine just how these violent criminal acts were brushed under the rug for the sake of political gain."
The Walker campaign said Barrett had extolled a reduction in Milwaukee's violent crime rate of more than 2.3 percent in 2011, but, when the misreported crimes were correctly factored, the rate actually rose by 1.1 percent in 2011.
In addition, Walker has pressed Barrett on his failure to present an economic plan for Wisconsin, saying in essence that, in the absence of such a plan, people can only assume the mayor will take Wisconsin back to the days of higher taxes and big deficits.
Among other things, the campaign released an ad called "Spending," which highlights Barrett's support for what it calls $100 million in "reckless spending on a boondoggle trolley project in Milwaukee."
"At a time when Milwaukee ranks as America's ninth-poorest city and its unemployment rate stands at a shocking 10.4 percent, mayor Tom Barrett wants to spend $100 million of taxpayer money on a boondoggle trolley project," Matthews said. "Mayor Barrett's backwards priorities are out of line with the needs of his city and would take Wisconsin back to the failed days of billion-dollar budget deficits, double-digit tax increases, and record job loss."
All of which was merely a preface to lauding the governor's record over the past year. For instance, in a May 25 televised debate, as well as in ads and news releases, Walker has repeated his successes: transforming a $3.6 billion budget deficit into a $154 million surplus; saving taxpayers more than $1 billion with his collective-bargaining reforms; lowering the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent, the lowest rate since 2008; and helping Wisconsin employers create more than 35,000 jobs.
That last number has helped to blunt what Barrett and his party had hoped would be the driving force of the recall campaign. Democrats campaigned aggressively on monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics survey data showing the state losing 33,900 jobs in Walker's first year. But Walked countered with more-detailed quarterly data showing the state gained 23,300 jobs in 2011.
The Barrett campaign disputed the numbers, but pretty much abandoned the jobs strategy. Even BLS officials said the monthly figures were inaccurate, given the small sample of businesses surveyed. Indeed, one BLS official told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the margin of error for the net jobs change in Wisconsin could be 9,340 jobs in either direction in any given month.
"Today's numbers are just another indication that under Gov. Walker, Wisconsin is headed in the right direction," Matthews said the day the quarterly numbers were released. "While the unemployment rate has been on the steady decline - today dropping to 6.7 percent - since Gov. Walker took office, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett has presided over a 28 percent increase in unemployment.
"The policies he has implemented in his city have proven detrimental and Wisconsin cannot afford to let him take the state back to the failed days of record-setting job loss and double-digit tax increases."
Barrett goes all in on probe
While it's impossible to say to what extent the John Doe investigation will affect Walker's future, there's no doubt Barrett's prospects are inextricably tied to the probe. In fact, he has tethered virtually his entire campaign effort to it over the past two weeks.
While Barrett did reassert some positive themes in his debate against Walker on May 25 - saying he is the man to end Wisconsin's "civil war" - the positive tone has been replaced by an almost laser-like focus on the John Doe probe.
Indeed, since May 21, about half of Barrett's news releases have pounded away at the issue. Barrett also unveiled an ad calling on Walker to "finally" answer questions about the ongoing investigation, and to do so before voters head to the polls.
"For months, Walker has ducked and dodged serious questions about the criminal probe into his administration and several of his associates," Barrett said. "The questions are piling up, and Walker is trying to run out the clock. But the people of Wisconsin need to know more. ... voters deserve to know if their governor is the target of a criminal investigation."
Not content with the general approach, Barrett asked Walker to make public all emails pertaining to a secret wireless Internet system installed in county offices and allegedly used in illegal fundraising and other possible felonies.
"The people of Wisconsin deserve to know if their governor is involved in felonious activity or is the target of a criminal investigation," Barrett said. "Walker is obviously trying to run out the clock and avoid accountability, but voters deserve the full truth before they go to the polls. The governor can finally put the doubts to rest by simply disclosing for the public the emails that have been turned over to prosecutors."
Barrett specifically demanded that Walker authorize release of all emails between Oct. 16, 2009 - the date the email system was installed - and May 14, 2010.
Barrett again made the probe and the emails the central issue in the days leading up to the first gubernatorial debate. In a paid ad, he said he would ask Walker two simple questions at the debate sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcaster's Association.
The ad asked Walker if he would release all emails exchanged with former associates charged with or pleaded guilty to criminal wrongdoing. And it asked Walker to identify the campaign donors funding his criminal defense fund.
"These are two very simple, very basic questions that the people of Wisconsin deserve the answers to - before the June 5th election," Barrett said. "Thus far, Walker has ducked, dodged and deflected any attempts to get straight answers and honest information from him. But he can't run out the clock on the people of Wisconsin. Walker must come clean and answer these questions, before voters head to the polls."
Barrett did indeed raise the two questions at the May 25 debate, but perhaps did not get the coverage he thought he might; the thrust was diluted in the next day's news stories, and Walker himself successfully parried the issue during the discussion. The governor simply repeated his statement that he was not a target of the probe and shot back at Barrett, calling him desperate.
Despite the issue's flatness at the debate, Barrett has not let it go, either sensing it is gaining traction with voters or simply because he has no other issue to go to. On the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, the mayor released yet another radio ad about the probe, aimed at veterans themselves.
"Walker criminal scandal began with scheme to rip off vets," the press release announcing the ad asserted.
"Gov. Walker is engulfed in scandal amidst a criminal probe into illegal campaign activity that occurred feet from his office - and it all started with an unbelievable scam of the families of veterans who served our nation honorably," said Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak. "The more the people of Wisconsin learn about the criminal probe into Walker cronies and associates, the more they demand answers from this governor about what he knew and when he knew it. It's long past time for Walker to come clean, and it starts with releasing to the public the thousands of emails he gave to prosecutors."
Whether Barrett would succeed in casting a criminal shadow over Walker while Walker promoted his record on the economy - and denigrated Barrett's own record - is anybody's guess. But Republicans nonetheless eyed one lingering reality: Despite Barrett's apparent lack of issues, and despite Walker's overwhelming financial advantage - his fundraising totals as of this writing had topped $30 million - Barrett remained relatively close in most polls, though trailing.
With the Government Accountability Board predicting a voter turnout that would exceed the November 2010 gubernatorial election, the race has become a turnout game. With days to go, the mayor of Milwaukee clearly still has a chance.
Other recall races
Of course, as Republicans have begun reminding voters, there are other recall races - one statewide contest for lieutenant governor and four state Senate races.
Democrats need to win just one of the four Senate contests to take control of that chamber, but legislatively it won't matter much because the Senate has ended its session for the year. That means lawmakers won't convene again until after the November elections, which include a new round of Senate elections in newly redrawn districts.
Because of redistricting, the GOP is positioned well for those November contests, no matter what happens Tuesday. The recall elections are being held using the old district boundaries.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, one of three GOP incumbents facing recall (the fourth contest is an open seat), told Politico that the election results will have symbolic value, giving the GOP a mandate to move forward or, as he put it, halting the progress of that agenda.
The same holds true for the lieutenant governor's race. If Madison union leader Mahlon Mitchell unseats Kleefisch, the symbolism would be sizeable even with a Walker win. To be sure, the lieutenant governor has no power, but the position still comes with something of a bully pulpit. At the very least, Mitchell could prove to be a public relations' thorn in Walker's side.
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com
Posted: Thursday, June 7, 2012
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Walkers record is that he has created very few jobs unlike he claimed he would