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Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker Seeks Rare Third Term

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Wisconsin is another one of those Midwest states that Democrats were banking on in 2016 but which ultimately went for President Trump. It's a purple state, meaning Democrats and Republicans are both competitive at times. But Republicans have controlled the state legislature for some time. Now, Republican Governor Scott Walker is seeking a rare third term in office there. And polling suggests it's his closest race yet. As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, the circumstances couldn't be more different than when Walker was first elected eight years ago.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: In 2010, Republicans captured 11 governors' offices previously held by Democrats. Winners that year included Sam Brownback...

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SAM BROWNBACK: No more Obama way. Now to the Kansas way.

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JOHNSON: ...John Kasich...

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JOHN KASICH: Guess what? I'm going to be governor of Ohio.

JOHNSON: ...And Scott Walker.

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SCOTT WALKER: Tonight, I want to tell every worker, every family and every business, big or small, in this state that you have an ally in the governor's office. Wisconsin is open for business.

JOHNSON: But most of the class of 2010 has moved on. Some, like Brownback, took jobs in the Trump administration. Most, like Kasich, are term-limited. Walker, who has helped build a powerful Republican machine in Wisconsin, is now the only governor from that group who's running for a third term. And the latest poll from Marquette University showed his race is a tie. Marquette pollster Charles Franklin says it's a different landscape for Walker than in his previous runs because, for the first time, there's a Republican president in the White House.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: Those are things that almost always work against the president's party, whether we're talking about congressional or gubernatorial elections. So Walker's facing headwinds on the national scene this year that he's not confronted in his previous elections.

JOHNSON: Democratic ads in this race have hammered home Walker's tenure in office. Eight years, they say, is long enough. They've also reminded people of Walker's brief run for president in 2015.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So who do you think will really help our kids, the politician who put his ambition ahead of our schools or the teacher who's dedicated his life to making them better?

JOHNSON: The teacher in this race is the mild-mannered Democrat Tony Evers, who has won three elections as Wisconsin's state superintendent of public instruction.

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TONY EVERS: This election is bigger than Scott Walker, and frankly, it's bigger than me. This election is about our kids.

JOHNSON: Walker has also talked about his eight years in office, but he frames it as a warning.

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WALKER: Remember back eight years ago? This state was suffering. It was a mess. We had double-digit tax increases, billion-dollar budget deficits and record job loss.

JOHNSON: Walker has warned that Evers would raise taxes if elected, even as Evers has promised a new income tax cut. But the close election has also pushed Walker into unfamiliar territory, with polls showing the Affordable Care Act's protections for pre-existing conditions extremely popular, Walker has promised to safeguard them in state law.

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WALKER: So enough with the scare tactics. In Wisconsin, pre-existing conditions are covered, and as long as I'm governor, there always will be.

JOHNSON: That caught President Obama's attention when he visited Milwaukee to campaign for Evers. He noted Walker was making the claim at the same time he was authorizing Wisconsin's participation in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the ACA.

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BARACK OBAMA: That is some kind of gall. That some kind of chutzpah. But let's also call what it is - it is a lie.

JOHNSON: President Donald Trump has also gotten involved in Wisconsin's race. He told an audience at a central Wisconsin airport that Walker had become a great friend of his.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Scott fights every day for you. And now, we need you to fight for him. And all you have to do is go out and vote.

JOHNSON: Walker's attempt at a third term in office has not gone unnoticed, and it's not coming easy. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.