For Walker, a loss would last

For Walker, a loss would last
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The stakes are higher for one candidate above all others on Nov. 4: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).

Walker is so beloved among conservatives that he has a real shot at becoming the GOP presidential candidate in 2016. But that dream would be punctured by a defeat in his gubernatorial race.

Knotting the stomachs of Walker and his supporters, a loss has begun to seem a much more realistic possibility than it once was.

He has seen his lead over Democrat Mary Burke vanish. Republicans say that they always expected this race to come down to the wire, but the two candidates are now statistically tied.

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Perhaps that should not be so surprising. Walker has slashed budgets and championed businesses against labor unions. Those actions, together with his combative style, have won him the ardor of the right. They have also earned him the loathing of the left.

The current finely balanced state of the race is, in part, “a reflection of the degree of polarization that you see in the state,” said Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While campaigns typically spend the last few weeks trying to lure undecided voters off the fence, the most recent polls in Wisconsin have found that only a small portion of the electorate — between 2 and 6 percent of likely voters — have not made up their minds.

That’s why many suggest that the race will hinge on who can turn out more of their base on Election Day. 

“With everything involved, with all the money that’s been poured in, with this much partisanship, it will all boil down to the basics of Get Out The Vote,” said Brandon Scholz, the CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association. Scholz has served as a Republican strategist to local and state campaigns, and is a Walker supporter.

He said that Walker’s experience in his 2010 election and a 2012 recall gives him a slight edge over Burke in a turnout operation. But Scholz added that Burke’s staff is certainly capable of rallying supporters to the polls.

Many observers, even those who are ideologically simpatico with Walker, believe defeat would doom any White House hopes.

“The most obvious point in the world is that if he doesn’t win this election, he can’t run for president,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said — though he added that he would be “surprised” if Walker lost. 

 Mayer said the margin of victory might be almost as important as the victory itself.

“It’s not clear how much of a boost [Walker] gets if he wins with 51 or 52 percent,” Mayer said. “On the one hand, yes, this is three consecutive elections that he wins, but it’s not clear that he is a candidate that can appeal to people in the middle.”

The role of the Republican Governors Association and its head, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has become the subject of some intrigue in the race’s closing days.

A Weekly Standard article this week asserted that some unnamed but high-level Wisconsin Republicans believed Christie had purposefully kept money from Walker in order to dampen the prospects of a potential 2016 rival.

The story noted that Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) has received significantly more money from the RGA than has Walker, despite Snyder’s race being widely seen as less competitive.

The RGA told The Washington Post Friday that it would come to Walker’s aid with another million-dollar ad buy in Wisconsin.

So long as he survives on Election Day, Walker can take heart from the degree to which the potential 2016 GOP presidential field is muddled. Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.) have taken leads in many of the early straw polls, but Walker has also performed strongly in some surveys.

Mackowiak said a Walker run in 2016 is far from a certainty. Among the potential complications that would need to be ironed out: the aspirations of fellow Wisconsinite and 2012 vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan.

Walker must also decide whether he wants to embark on his fourth election campaign in six years.

Still, if he does take the plunge, Mackowiak said Walker would have a real shot at the nomination.

“If he wins reelection, you can make a case that nobody in the country has won more consequential battles for conservatism,” he said. “If he’s able to be reelected, I think he’s going to have one hell of a case to make.”

All of that, most people believe, hinges on the big “if”: Winning reelection.

But not everyone agrees. Matt Beynon, a spokesman for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R), said that a loss in Wisconsin would not necessarily disqualify Walker. Santorum lost his Senate reelection in 2006 and went on to place second in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, in the process becoming the main standard-bearer of those who found eventual nominee Mitt Romney milquetoast.

“Losing a race isn’t the nail in the coffin. Everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton to Sen. Santorum either won or exceeded expectations when they ran for president after losing a race,” Beynon said. “The bigger question isn’t if you lose, it’s how you ran the race that you lost.”

Prefacing his observations by emphasizing that he believes Walker will win, Beynon insisted that, even if he lost, what will matter most to presidential primary voters is whether he holds true to his principles.

After Santorum started picking up steam in the early states in 2012, Beynon said, “the fact that he lost 2006 was no longer a question that he got. He passed that litmus test of credibility and viability.”

Still, for all the talk of Walker and 2016, Wisconsin Republicans have a clearer and more immediate goal in mind: Win on Nov. 4.

“Today, nobody cares about 2016,” Scholz said. “That is about as far from the Walker supporters’ minds as humanly possible.”