In fact, Wisconsin’s registered voters by a wide margin—53 to 41 percent—say the state is moving in the right direction. Which, in Walker’s case, is a rightward direction. It’s a noteworthy achievement for a conservative politician, given the track record of Wisconsin’s progressive forebears, who nurtured public-union collective bargaining (the first state to do so, in 1959), crafted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law (1911), and drafted the national bills that became the Social Security Act and the Dependents’ Medical Care Act, better known as Medicare.
Not surprisingly, John Nichols, the longtime progressive Wisconsin commentator, warns that beating Walker in 2018 “is going to be an all-hands-on-deck project.” And Dan Kaufman, the author of the new book The Fall of Wisconsin (tracking Walker’s trumping of the progressive tradition), is similarly cautious. He told me that Walker is “potentially vulnerable,” but that was the extent of his bullishness. He said Walker’s future may hinge on “how fatigued people are. There is fatigue with his divide-and-conquer politics, with the public sector getting hollowed out over six or seven years—in a state that prided itself on its public services … Walker and his conservative allies have tried to change the political culture of the state. The big question is, have they done it?”
Walker himself appears unsure. Four months ago, he freaked out on Twitter, warning his followers that “we are at risk of a #BlueWave in Wisconsin … We need conservatives to take action and stop a #BlueWave.” The occasion was an April judicial election to fill an open seat on the state Supreme Court. Walker’s candidate, also the National Rifle Association’s candidate, was eviscerated by the anti-Trump progressive Rebecca Dallet. She won the statewide race by 12 points; it was the first time in 23 years that a progressive (Wisconsin’s preferred synonym for liberal) had captured an open seat on the state’s high court. Dallet did it by rolling up huge margins on Trump–Walker turf. Democrats were stoked to vote; Republicans were not. It’s possible that Trump is yanking the rug from beneath Walker’s feet.
For Walker, that election wasn’t the first red flag. Back in January, there was a special state Senate contest in a rural red district. The Republican who vacated the seat to join Walker’s administration had previously won it by a margin of 26 points, and had held it for 17 years. Trump in 2016 won the district’s presidential vote by 17 points. But when the special election votes were tallied, the Democratic candidate swept it by nearly 10 points. That news also triggered a Walker tweet (“a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin”), and it prompted him to try something new: a plan to cancel future special elections.
Faced with the prospect of two more specials in June, to fill a pair of vacant legislative seats, he declared that such contests were “unnecessary” and “a waste of taxpayer resources.” Translation: He feared more GOP losses. The state courts swiftly slapped him down. In April, an appeals judge stated the obvious: “Representative government and the election of our representatives are never ‘unnecessary,’ never ‘a waste of taxpayer resources.’ [Walker] has an obligation to follow the law.” He did. The June specials, in GOP districts, were duly held. One of the seats flipped to the Democrats. Similar red-to-blue flips have been endemic nationwide.