There is a theory among Democrats that Mary Burke has a good chance of defeating incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker. "I can tell you in D.C., everyone thinks the race is in play," a well-connected Democrat says.
This is based, among other things, on the idea that Walker has high negatives as measured by polls of Wisconsin voters and that Burke will get considerable out-of-state campaign money because Democrats nationally will target Walker for defeat.
But the fact is that Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republicans Ron Johnson and Paul Ryan also have high negatives, because Wisconsin is now so politically polarized. Burke will eventually, too, as soon as enough people begin to form an opinion of her. And no matter how much campaign money Burke gets, Walker will have a lot more.
Walker hasn't delivered the jobs he promised, but he will run ads claiming credit for how the economy has improved. He will tout his tax cuts, which have been significant. And he won't lose the race because of Act 10, because his law crushing unions hasn't brought the end of the world as liberals predicted. Any negative impact on the schools could take many years to be felt.
In short, Walker is in a strong position. Burke has little chance to win unless she engages Walker -- and fiercely -- on issues where he is vulnerable, including:
Jobs: Job growth in Wisconsin rose faster than it did nationally for the last few years under Gov. Jim Doyle and has trailed the nation under Walker. Burke must hammer this issue.
Taxes: Yes, this is a strong issue for Walker, but he has some vulnerability here. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau found his tax cut delivered 60% of the dollars to those making more than $100,000 a year. He also reduced the Homestead Tax Credit, which helps lower-income people. A recent Marquette University Law School poll found that 65% think Walker's tax reductions do more for the wealthy.
State debt: Yes, Walker has reduced the state's long-term "structural" deficit (by about 12%), but it's still one of the biggest ones in the country, and he's meanwhile pushed the state's bonded indebtedness to the highest level in state history.
Raising the minimum wage: Polls show at least 75% of Americans support this. At a time when inequality in America is the highest in a century, Walker opposes a hike. A very potent issue for Democrats.
Restore the earned income tax credit: Surveys on this are rare, but one in Michigan found 76% of respondents opposed eliminating the EITC. Walker slashed the amount of the credit, which was created by Republicans in Wisconsin in 1989 as a way to support work, not welfare. When combined with the governor's opposition to raising the minimum wage, it leaves the working poor with no immediate help of any kind.
Health care funding: Walker turned down federal funds to expand Medicaid for those slightly over the poverty line, funding that supplements Obamacare. This means less health care for people and a loss of funding that would have saved the state $459 million through 2021, according to the Fiscal Bureau. The Marquette Poll found 56% opposed this Walker policy and just 36% supported it.
Same-sex marriage: The Marquette poll found 53% of state residents support it and 19% oppose it (with 24% favoring civil unions). Burke favors same-sex marriages and opposes the 2006 state constitutional amendment banning them while Walker has declared that Wisconsin's current situation provides gay people "a healthy balance" of rights.
Abortion: The Marquette poll showed only 38% of Wisconsin residents support and 56% oppose a requirement that women seeking abortion must also have an ultrasound, a rule signed into law by Walker.
Medical marijuana: Polls show it's favored by about 80% of Americans and perhaps more Wisconsinites (there's been no state poll on this for many years). Walker opposes it and Burke favors it, but offered a mushy sound bite on the issue.
Concealed carry: Polls of the last 20 years have shown that anywhere from 60% (2011) to 83% (in the 1990s) of Wisconsin residents oppose this measure, which Walker signed into law.
Either because Burke is by nature timid or because her advisers believe her best strategy is to run as a centrist, pro-business Democrat, she is so far doing little to engage Walker on these issues, where he is largely out of step with voters. That strikes me as a huge error.
Walker is a personally likable, very adroit politician who won't be defeated just because his opponent looks less edgy or ideological. His great strength is that people know where he stands. Burke can only win by making that a weakness, by articulating an equally specific set of policies, and by offering voters a clear alternative.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.