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Walker, Burke Shift Focus to Independents in Wis. Governor's Race

by Debbie Sharnak, published

Governor Scott Walker has already run a statewide campaign in Wisconsin for his seat, twice in fact. First, he ran in 2010 against Tom Barrett and won. Then, in 2012, the two candidates had a rematch in a recall election -- Walker, again, triumphed. In both elections, polls showed Walker holding onto steady leads throughout the campaign season.

After both victories, Walker’s national profile rose substantially. His name is frequently floated as a potential 2016 presidential candidate and Walker, himself, has shown a desire to run. He has made numerous appearances around the country at prominent locales like the Reagan library.

Now, however, he finds himself in a heated race with Democratic candidate Mary Burke for re-election. The latest poll numbers show that among registered voters, Walker leads 46-45, but among registered voters likely to vote, Burke leads 47-46.

So who will make the difference in November? Well, it appears it will most likely be independent voters.

While many of the demographic and party divisions remained unchanged in the polls, the numbers continue to shift with independents. Walker currently has a one-point advantage with independents, 45-44.

However, Burke is gaining ground. The last poll was conducted in July, but in May, Burke was down 49-40 among independents -- indicating a notable increase in support.

These new numbers are prompting both candidates to re-evaluate their campaign strategies, and both appear to be shifting their focus to the economy.

Burke is focusing on the lack of economic growth in the state. She argues that Wisconsin has seen some of the slowest economic improvement in the region under Walker's governorship and currently ranks last in the Midwest in private sector job growth.

The Burke campaign is capitalizing on this, especially since Walker ran his original 2010 campaign on a platform that promised to improve the state’s economy.

She is also stressing her own experience as a former executive at Trek bicycles, where she says she gained the executive experience in the private sector needed to turn Wisconsin around. Similarly, she has focused on expanding her appeal to the more rural areas of the state where Democrats have typically struggled. This strategy includes a plan aimed at helping rural families.

Walker is responding by going on the offensive against Burke.

Walker is trying to use Burke’s experience at Trek against her, criticizing the company for outsourcing to China and abandoning Wisconsin workers. Walker is also touting his success as governor, citing victories like Act 10 (which banned public sector unions), which he argues has helped grow Wisconsin’s economy.

Shifting the focus to the economy may well be a way to attract independent voters and boost turnout, which will be critical for both campaigns. Neither candidate is rallying their base with hot button issues like Wisconsin’s current battle with legalizing same-sex marriage or even Obamacare. Instead, the economy is taking center stage as both candidates gear their campaigns to readjust to the realities of the polls.

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