By SCOTT BAUER
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Standing in front of a beer-pasteurizing tank at a Milwaukee manufacturing company, Gov. Scott Walker watched as former Gov. Tommy Thompson exhorted a friendly Republican crowd to help Walker prevail in his surprisingly precarious race for a third term.
“I know the recipe works,” declared Thompson, waving his arms and wearing a bright red sweater under a suit coat on a cool October day. “The recipe is Scott Walker. You know like a good chocolate chip cookie, it sort of melts in your mouth? You know it really feels good.”
But the old recipe for victory may not be working in a midterm election in which Democrats appear poised to do well throughout the country. Ominous polls have given Walker reason to feel unsettled, and he’s sounding the alarm to supporters. Democrats, after years of failure and frustration, are daring to hope that they may finally slay their political white whale.
If the onetime presidential candidate and Republican rising star loses, it would be one of the bigger upsets in the midterm election. Walker has shown more than once in the past that he can win in difficult situations — winning both his initial election and then re-election despite Barack Obama having two victories in his state. And in 2012, Walker turned back a recall attempt mounted by Democrats incensed by his attack on public-sector unions.
If Walker lost to Tony Evers , the bland 66-year-old state education superintendent who enjoys Egg McMuffins and playing the card game euchre, Democrats might once again have hope for their future in a state that Republicans have had a firm grip on for eight years.
Walker’s approval rating remains below 50 percent and President Donald Trump’s is worse, even though Trump carried the state two years ago. Critical independent voters who had favored Walker seem to be leaning toward Democrats. And although Wisconsin’s economy is humming and polls show people believe the state is headed in the right direction, they’re also crossways with Walker on big issues that Evers is trying to call attention to, including health care, education and roads.
Evers has pledged to reverse ill effects from Walker’s budget austerity, which Walker credits for boosting the economy.
“I’ve seen on the faces of our kids what the devastation of Scott Walker’s cuts to public education has done,” said Evers, a former school teacher and administrator, referring to $700 million in education budget cuts, some of which was later restored. “I’ve seen parents and families struggling with rising health care costs and stagnant wages.”
Walker insists he can make a strong case for being re-elected.
Sporting a Milwaukee Brewers warmup jacket to celebrate the team’s playoff run, he riffed at the Milwaukee rally about unemployment levels at or near record lows of 2.8 percent and the tax, budget and regulation cuts he pushed through in his two terms. He promised more money for schools.
“The people of this state don’t want to go backwards,” Walker said, “they want to go forward.”
Ted Kieper, 75, a Walker supporter at the event, said he can’t understand why Walker is in a close race given the strong economy.
“I’m hoping the polls are wrong like they were in the presidential election,” he said.
Recent surveys have shown a persistent lack of enthusiasm for Republicans, fueling optimism for Democrats who have already won two special legislative elections and captured a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat this year. Adding to the sense of Walker’s vulnerability: No fewer than four of his former Cabinet secretaries have come out publicly against his re-election, and two have cut ads for his opponent.
With many left-leaning voters inflamed by Trump — who is scheduled to campaign in central Wisconsin this week for Walker and other Republicans — U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, has held a double-digit lead over her Republican challenger, Leah Vukmir, despite heavy GOP spending in that race.
In the August primary, about 20 percent more voters cast ballots in the Democratic contest for governor than in the Republican primary for Senate.
“When he’s run before they were all in very good Republican environments, where Republicans did well in Wisconsin, they did well across the country,” said Marquette University political science professor Paul Nolette. “This year is much different.”
But Democrats have been burned by false optimism before.
They can’t “spike the football on the 5-yard line,” said Patrick Guarasci, a Democratic strategist. Victory will require getting every possible Democratic voter to the polls, he said.
In 2014, Walker won by more than five points over Democrat Tom Barrett after polls a month earlier had the race even.
“He will be in every corner of the state between now and November. He will not be outworked,” said Stephan Thompson, a longtime Republican strategist.
Walker, the 50-year-old son of a Baptist preacher, has led a conservative revolution since becoming governor in 2011. Besides rolling back benefits for public worker unions, he made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, signed a voter ID law, and scaled back environmental regulation, which made him a national political figure, though a 2016 presidential bid faded early.