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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fair
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The suddenly liberal Scott Walker
Using left-wing arguments against Mary Burke may be the only way he can win
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Credit:David Michael Miller

In recent weeks, Walker has sounded more like uber-lefty Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), who has criticized Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke for not being liberal enough. For starters, Walker has run two campaign ads blasting Burke for allegedly "making millions of dollars sending jobs overseas." Burke and her defenders say any such decisions by her family's company Trek Bicycle were made after she no longer worked for it.

That question aside, it was bizarre to see the thoroughly right-wing Walker aligning himself with liberal Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a frequent critic of companies outsourcing jobs. Walker was also taking a page from the playbook of the Obama campaign, which condemned Republican Mitt Romney for exporting jobs.

On the Wall Street Journal editorial page, conservative Allysia Finley slapped at Walker's sudden left turn, noting that "Economic populism is usually the province of Democrats who don't understand how free markets work or who cynically hope to exploit voters' insecurities. Mr. Walker is better than that."

Apparently not. Walker went on to call Burke a hypocrite for supporting an increase in the minimum wage "and yet personally profiting from a company that sends work to China where they make two dollars an hour."

Piling on, Walker charged that Trek "hasn't paid corporate income taxes since 1982." The claim is misleading, because Trek is an S corporation, which means that net revenue is passed on to its shareholders, who pay personal income taxes on the gains. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported, Mary Burke and other family members who hold much of the company's stock have in fact paid hefty income taxes on the company's gains.

But that question aside, Walker's charge is a slap at companies across the state, the majority of which are also S corporations. Walker is aligning himself with Senate Democrats, who have been pushing to close the S-corp loophole, while congressional Republicans have decried such efforts.

Walker has also approved what Republicans normally condemn as "class warfare" against the wealthy. A website run by the Wisconsin Republican Party derides Burke as a "definitive 'one-percenter'" and an "Outsourcing Millionaire" who once worked for McKinsey, "a global consulting firm known for its outsourcing expertise."

What the hell is going on here?

There are several explanations.

Walker's blasts at Burke's alleged outsourcing suggests he's worried about her attack on him for providing state subsidies to companies that have exported jobs. In fact, Walker last week did another left turn and backed a proposal by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca to block state incentives from funding companies that shift jobs overseas.

Walker and other Republicans have also argued that their attacks prove Burke is "hypocritical." Perhaps, but isn't Walker even more hypocritical for attacking her on the minimum wage, which he opposes raising, or for being part of an S corporation, a common business structure he would otherwise support, or for outsourcing jobs, something he's never criticized until his sudden embrace of Barca's proposal?

No, I think the major goal of these attacks is to sour Democrats on voting for Burke by convincing them she is not a true liberal. Because if Democrats turn out in force in November, Walker may be out of a job.

The last two Marquette Law School polls -- from May and July -- had nothing but bad news for Walker. Both found the race was a dead heat, despite the fact that 49% of those surveyed said they didn't know enough about Burke to have an opinion. That's because nearly every voter has an adamantly pro or con opinion about Walker, with less than 50% having a positive opinion of him in both polls.

Both polls showed the state has more Democrats than Republicans and predicted the November electorate was likely to have a higher percentage of Democrats voting. Meanwhile, Walker's 9% edge over Burke among independents in May had dropped to just 1% by July.

Why the latter decline? "The economic news has not been particularly good," Marquette's pollster Charles Franklin theorizes, "and the John Doe probe may have had an impact."

Where does this leave the Walker campaign?

He already has the support of 93% of Republicans, so there's not much he can do to up that, or increase their opposition to Burke.

His only recourse is to attack her, and convince the 49% of the voters who have no opinion of her that she is a "hypocrite" (aimed, one suspects, at the small percentage of independents left in this hyper-polarized state) or is not a true liberal -- a charge aimed at Democrats.

Notice you haven't seen the standard GOP attack -- that Burke is a Madison liberal? Walker wants to convince Democrats that Burke isn't a liberal, and thereby depress their turnout. If he fails, he may well lose the election.

Bruce Murphy is the editor of Urban Milwaukee.

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