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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Scott Walker is not invincible: Democrats need to shake off their fatalism
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Snap out of it, people. Two numbers make Scott Walker vulnerable: 50 and 44.

The governor's approval ratings hover around 50%, which is weak for an incumbent. And Wisconsin ranks 44th among the states in job creation. Walker ran on jobs, promising to create 250,000 in four years. At the current pace we won't get half the way there in time for his reelection.

So why are Democrats I talk with and those on social media so glum about the party's chances? Basically, they make two arguments. Walker won the recall election convincingly and he'll have more money than God.

Let's take those one at a time. Yes, Walker won the recall by a comfortable margin, but keep in mind that exit polls found that six out of 10 voters just didn't like the whole idea of the recall. In fact, it's amazing that Tom Barrett, Walker's opponent, got the 46% he did, because it meant that about 6% of voters who didn't even believe in the recall still voted against Walker.

Wisconsinites are fundamentally fair-minded, and many of them just believed that, in the absence of criminal conduct, a governor should be able to serve out the term he was elected to regardless of his policy choices. The recall results did give the governor a boost, but they don't predict how he'll do once his four years are up.

As for money, it matters, but not as much as we tend to think it does. Walker has high name recognition but relatively low job-approval numbers. That means there are a lot of voters who know him but don't like him or don't like what they know about his policies. This creates an opening for a challenger because it's a lot harder to convince a voter who has already decided she doesn't like a well-known incumbent to vote for him than it is to convince her to vote for someone she just doesn't know yet.

Then there's sweet demographics. Every new millennial generation voter (those born after 1980) who comes of age is more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. Millennials are overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality and more likely to favor gun control and action on global climate change. And they are generally more likely to believe that government can improve their lives.

In addition, we're becoming more diverse, and Hispanic and black voters are voting overwhelmingly for Democrats. Republicans have seemingly written off African Americans altogether, while their stumbling around on immigration reform further alienates Hispanics.

All of that is built on a base that Walker and the current Republican leadership is out of step with to begin with. This is a state that just elected the first openly gay United States senator, a liberal Democrat from Dane County. We gave Barack Obama comfortable margins in his two elections. And in the last round of state legislative races Assembly Democratic candidates received almost 200,000 more votes in aggregate than their Republican opponents. The only reason Republicans have a commanding 60-39 lead in Assembly seats is that they gerrymandered the state to clump Democrats into a small number of concentrated electoral ghettos. The radical right-wing Republicans running this state don't nearly represent where most Wisconsinites are on the issues.

Democratic Party chair Mike Tate is spinning the line that we don't have any announced Democratic candidates yet because it's part of a strategy to make the Republicans and their allied groups hold their withering fire on the hapless Democratic challenger, whoever that turns out to be.

Maybe so, but it seems to me it would be better not to have one anointed candidate from the start. We could achieve the same thing by having a vigorous primary with several candidates to choose from. The Republicans would have to hold their fire because they wouldn't know who to shoot at until after the August 2014 primary. And unless the Dems think they can reveal their candidate a day before the November election and launch a massive write-in campaign, giving the Republicans no more than about 10 weeks to do their damage is the best that can be done.

Finally, the best thing that could happen for the Democratic cause would be for Gov. Walker to emerge as the early frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. If he becomes the guy to beat, his Republican competitors and the national news media will not let the John Doe investigation over campaign activities and other irregularities in his Milwaukee County Executive Office sit without further investigation.

The main thing Democrats have to do is stop feeling sorry for themselves about how the recall turned out and about all the money Walker will have. Those are just realities. With the right candidate and the right message and maybe a break, Walker can be defeated.

It's not over 'til it's over, and it hasn't even begun.


Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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