HUDSON, WIS. – After two terms, one recall attempt and a failed presidential bid, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was rejected Tuesday by voters weary of his ties to President Donald Trump, cuts to education and antagonism toward unions.
Walker conceded Wednesday afternoon to Tony Evers, superintendent of the state’s Department of Public Instruction, after coming up 31,000 votes short among 2.6 million cast. Although Wisconsin is a wide swath of Republican red, he lost Milwaukee, Madison and the surrounding suburbs for reasons that were discussed and debated Wednesday around this western Wisconsin town.
At St. Croix Tobacco Inc., a mostly male crowd comes and goes all day, stopping for a smoke and to chitchat. On duty Wednesday was James Palas, wearing a leather vest over his U.S. Marine Corps “Semper Fi” T-shirt, who said he voted for Evers because he has a lot of friends who are teachers, and that Walker “messed with something he shouldn’t have. He really went after them.”
A manufacturing supervisor, Palas isn’t in a union himself, but he supervises union workers for a Houston-based corporation. “They need some protections,” Palas said.
Like some others, he also saw a vote against Walker as a vote against Trump, who campaigned in the state, as did Vice President Mike Pence. Palas said he’s not fond of Trump’s politics of division.
“I’m a retired Marine,” he said. “I defend all people — race, creed, religion, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Neil Kraus, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Political Science Department, said Walker campaigned and governed with a damn-the-dissenters style before Trump did so nationally.
Throughout his tenure and in his previous campaigns, Walker focused on whipping up his rural supporters, making little effort to connect with urban and suburban swing voters. Perhaps as a result, Walker lost the suburbs around Milwaukee and Madison that had supported him in past elections, Kraus said.
Walker also had a habit of shunning anyone who wasn’t with him, rewarding his moneyed supporters and ignoring everyone else, Kraus said. That approach wore thin, even among his allies.
In recent weeks, four former members of Walker’s cabinet spoke out against him, Kraus said.
Kraus also believes voters’ big concerns were the economy and health care. “Despite claims that nationally the economy is good, it’s not that good for a lot of educated folks here,” he said. “Wage growth is still barely over inflation.”
And after years of fighting the Affordable Care Act, Walker declared last month that he supports the law’s requirement that health insurers cover pre-existing conditions. “That was a tough sell,” Kraus said.
Down at the cigar shop, John Nickleby breezed in from his coffee shop down the street, declaring that he voted a straight Republican ticket. “My basic philosophy is I don’t want government in my life,” he said, adding that under Walker, “Property taxes haven’t gone up in years.”
Nickleby said he also believed that Walker’s attack on teachers caught up with him. “They’ve been trying to get him for a long time,” he said.
At Kozy Korner Pizza in North Hudson, Doug Van Dyke, who is retired from the Army, said he voted for Evers even though he’s been a Trump supporter. He said Walker did a good job on budget issues but never did much for the military. “I just wasn’t going to vote for him this time,” Van Dyke said.
A few seats down, Margot Murphy, who sells real estate, said Walker’s actions against the unions remain a “painful topic,” but that as a fiscal conservative, she voted for him.
She said she suspects that his failed presidential bid in 2016 cost him at home. “People thought his focus was elsewhere,” she said.
Julie Hammon, who was loading up a hutch she’d bought at an estate sale near downtown Hudson, is a dental hygienist and union member who was smiling about the election results. Of Walker, she said, “I’m pro everything he’s against,” adding, “I just think people are ready for a change. He’s been in there long enough.”
Taking his dog Luna for an afternoon walk, 23-year-old bartender Jackson Raley said he didn’t vote for Evers or Walker. He voted for the Green Party down the ballot, because the others hadn’t focused on the environment enough. “We’ve got to save the planet,” he said. “We need to direct more funding toward doing that, developing alternative fuel sources.”
Kathy and George Ball, who are retired and moving to River Falls from Illinois, said they were thrilled by Walker’s ouster. “I don’t like the way he came down on teachers,” George Ball said. “We have a lot of teachers in our family.”
Back at the Kozy Korner, Murphy said she’s glad the campaign season is over. “I hope there’s a new tone,” she said. “I hope all our politicians hear there needs to be a new tone.”
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson