Gov. Tony Evers is in trouble. In a new Marquette Law School poll fully 53% of respondents said they would vote for somebody else next November. Only 40% said they planned to vote for Evers.
That, along with the drubbing Democrats took last week, amounts to grim news for the first term governor. But a year is a very long time and there’s an old saying in politics, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
And right now, Evers’ leading opponent, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is coming off just a little unhinged. She has the profile to win back suburban voters, but she has started her campaign by going hard right in an apparent attempt to seal off a challenger from the insane wing of her party. (For all the good it’s doing her. Donald Trump has endorsed former Congressman Sean Duffy, who isn’t even running and lives in New Jersey.) If Glen Youngkin’s soccer dad persona is the new GOP formula for success, in the early going Kleefisch isn’t following it.
In the wake of Virginia, if I were Bill McCoshen I might rethink my decision to pass on this race. A former Tommy Thompson administration official, McCoshen does share Youngkin’s profile. The guy comes off as if he were born in a fleece vest. He’s probably a much better bet for the Republicans than Kleefisch.
But whoever winds up getting the Republican nomination, that candidate will have three built-in advantages. First, they won’t be the incumbent. That same Marquette poll found that Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s numbers mirrored Evers’, suggesting an overall distaste for anybody in office. (This also suggests that people just aren’t paying attention. Evers is a decent, sane, reasonable man and a dedicated public servant while Johnson is off chasing nutty conspiracy theories down ratholes.)
Second, Evers won’t be able to hide from one of the most powerful issues for Republicans right now: education and the related culture wars. Evers’ whole career has been in public education. He was State Superintendent before he was Governor. If there is a status quo in education, Evers owns it. If the next election is a referendum on the public education establishment, then Evers is toast, even against Kleefisch.
(Now right here you might want to offer a contrary point of view. You might point out that school board recalls failed even in conservative, suburban Mequon, and in most parts of the country where they were tried. I hope you’re right. But I would point out that recalls are a high bar because some voters believe that officials should be allowed to serve out their terms even if they disagree with them. See Walker, Scott.)
And third, Evers is vulnerable on another big issue: crime. Evers has issued more pardons than any Wisconsin governor in history. While there are good reasons for that, they won’t matter. His Republican opponent will be sure to link the 30% increase in shootings around the state to his pardons, regardless of the fairness of that argument. (Evers has pardoned mostly nonviolent offenders who have already served their time and are very unlikely to commit violent crimes.)
Last summer, in frustration after Evers signed his second thoroughly Republican budget, I tossed up a Hail Mary and called for a Democratic primary. That landed with a thud. The reaction among my fellow Democrats ranged from indifference to hostility (shaded toward hostility), but virtually nobody thought it was a good idea. Evers was the horse the party was going to ride and that was that. So, I accepted Evers’ inevitability the way I accept getting my teeth cleaned. I know it’s the right thing to do and it’s not an awful experience, but I don’t look forward to it.
In light of Virginia and New Jersey and 53% of voters who say they’ll vote for anybody else, you might think Democrats might reconsider, but I don’t see that happening.
But if I were Bill McCoshen I’d rethink my decision not to run, and that will only compound the challenges for Tony Evers.
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