Little about Tony Evers feels like he’d be the one to slay the giant.
But with less than two weeks to go before people head to the polls, Evers – an unassuming Democrat running for governor in Wisconsin – is on the verge of doing something that has long eluded professional Democrats: Defeating Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
An average of polls shows Evers leading Walker in the final weeks of the campaign, causing Republican operatives in the state and in Washington to feel that 2018 is the best chance Democrats have ever had at taking down someone they have been longing to oust for years.
“I am the underdog,” Walker told CNN.
Why that’s the case is a more complicated question, given even the most ardent Democrats in the city’s most liberal enclaves see Evers, the superintendent of Wisconsin schools, as a less than exciting candidate. Democratic voters described him as “adequate,” “not very exciting” and someone lacking “a lot of charisma,” but then said they were “guaranteed” to vote for him because of their deep antipathy towards the governor.
Walker admittedly faces a series of unique headwinds. His near universal name recognition in Wisconsin has created a state full of hardened supporters and detractors, with only a few people in the middle undecided on him personally. He is also asking voters to back him for the fourth time in eight years, something even Walkers’ closest advisers admit is difficult. And he is running for a third-term in a year where Republicans nationally are facing backlash created by President Donald Trump’s presidency.
“People either love him or hate him,” said a top Republican operative. “So, this is the best chance Democrats have of beating him.”
Taken together, the environment has given Evers a genuine opening to be the next governor from Wisconsin, a sense that is palpable among Democrats in the state.
But in a midterm election where Democrats have seen once unknown candidates rocket into the national conversation on the backs of exciting personalities – namely Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – Evers and his running mate, Mandela Barnes, appear to be succeeding despite the educators’ unassuming nature.
“He is adequate,” said Caroline Schmitt, a 40-year old dermatologist from the Madison area. “He is not super exciting. He is a traditional Democrat and fits the mold of people who have been elected to office for the last 200 years.”
Katie Kaliszewski, a 32-year old cultural resource specialist from Madison, echoed that sentiment.
“I am really excited for vote for him, but I do not think he is not a very exciting candidate,” she said. “I really, really hate Scott Walker.”
Walker has also fought claims that he, too, is boring. During his ill-fated 2016 presidential run, he even told reporters that he would rather be “bland” than “dumb or old.” So he hasn’t run away from who he is: In the midst of his latest campaign, Walker has celebrated Milwaukee Brewers wins by tweeting various Bitmojis of himself in Brewers gear – and later joking about it to audiences.
The Capitol Times, a newspaper based in Madison, captured this best when they cast the governor’s race as two vanilla ice cream cones squaring off.
“Bland on bland,” read the headline.
Health care and education
Walker knows he faces an uphill battle this year.
Standing in a suburban Milwaukee campaign office – sporting a Milwaukee Brewers hat, custom jersey (Walker #45 because he’s the 45th governor of the state), baggy jeans and lace-up boots – the two-term governor urged voters not to take anything for granted. In a subtle humble brag, Walker said his biggest worry was not that voters are tired of seeing his name on the ballot – so called Walker fatigue – but that they just assume he is bound to win.
But Walker has also started to mention Tommy Thompson, the last Republican to win more than three terms in Wisconsin, more than anyone else, a subtle acknowledgment that his constant presence is an issue he’s looking to confront.
“People here have heard me say we cannot take this for granted. My number one concern is not fatigue, its complacency,” Walker said.
His argument goes like this: When he came into office, the state was over taxed and under performing. Though he swept into office and quickly angered Democrats, who unsuccessfully tried to recall him in 2012, he has lowered the tax burden in the state and ensured that there are jobs for anyone who wants them. That success, Walker argues, leads less politically engaged people to believe he can lose and, therefore, they stay home.
It’s not that simple for Walker, though.
While a number of economic indicators are positive under the Republican governor, Democrats point to the fact that wages continue to be behind the national average as proof that not all Wisconsin voters are feeling the economic boost.
Additionally, polls have shown that the economy is not the most important issue in the election. That designation falls to either education or health care – two issues where Walker is on the defensive.
Walker finds himself in the same complicated position that Republicans across the country are in. The governor rode anti-Obamacare sentiment to victory in 2010, but now the law that he has railed against and that his state is suing to overturn is working against him.
Evers is attacking him on the fact that repealing Obamacare would mean overturning rules that mandate coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Walker has responded by cutting glossy ads about his pledge to always address the issue, calling it a “personal” issue for him.
“I am always going to cover pre-existing conditions in this state,” he said on the campaign trail.
But when asked why he doesn’t just pull out of the lawsuit, he pivoted.
“No, because Obamacare is awful,” Walker said. “We can protect preexisting conditions in this state without protecting Obamacare.”
Evers has also hammered the governor for Act 10, a bill Walker pushed that gutted teachers’ unions and led to widespread protests across the state. The problem for Walker is that some teachers left the profession due to falling salaries, leading to a less experienced workforce and an under performing student body.
Walker has tried to counter the narrative by pledging to fund schools at the same level as Evers, but even the governor’s supporters believe he is losing on the issue.
“If you are a single-issue education voter,” said Patrick Evans, a candidate for mayor of Green Bay who supports Walker, “then you are probably going to go with Evers.”
All about Walker
Democrats are proud of Evers’ campaign. They think he has run a strong race, has focused on the key issues and engaged voters who sat out the 2016 election.
But even top Democratic operatives working on the race admit it’s less about him.
“The race is more about Walker than anything else,” said one such operative.
Evers disagrees with this sentiment and, in an interview with CNN, argued that his focus on education and health care is what is propelling his bid. Evers said the widespread dissatisfaction that helped propel Trump to win Wisconsin in 2016 is also helping him.
“That dissatisfaction is the same dissatisfaction that we are finding with people around Scott Walker not investing in education, not caring about our natural resources,” he said. “I am offering them a positive vision for the future” like a “fully funded education system.”
But the Democrat is well aware of the sense that Walker is unbeatable, something that was developed after Democrats failed to recall him in 2012.
When a reporter asked him about Walker not losing a race in decades, Evers quickly interjected.
“He lost the presidential race, so I think he lost relatively recently,” he said with a wry smile. “He failed miserably on the stage.”
Evers’ bet is that by focusing on education, he can recreate that result and oust Walker. Among liberals, it seems to be working. Democrat after Democrat said that they are voting against Walker because of Act 10 or the state of Wisconsin schools.
And John Kuse and Jenny Kuse, who moved back to Wisconsin to raise their daughter because of the schools years ago, said they were backing Evers because of his stance on education.
“I think Scott Walker really did a lot of harm to our state during our tenure,” said Jenny Kuse, her daughter standing nearby.
John agreed and commended Evers for his education platform. But when asked about his thoughts on Evers, the candidate, he got less animated.
“Not a lot of charisma there,” John said.
That sentiment has become a running joke inside the Evers campaign, with even the candidate sitting down to read “Mean Tweets” about that call him “the most boring candidate I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Well golly, that was a lot of fun,” he says.
Barnes, Evers’ young, African-American running mate, is in on the joke and often tells audiences that their average age is 48.5 years. But when pressed on the sentiment that Evers isn’t exciting Democrats, Barnes offered arguably the most effective defense of his running mate.
“People across the state of Wisconsin just want a governor that is going to have their best interests,” he said. “I think that is what it comes down to. You don’t have to burn down the room with some fiery speech to be a good governor.”