CG: The culture issues are not as decisive in this cycle as they were, for example, in 1998—then, abortion was a big issue in Feingold’s reelection campaign. You don’t see Republicans talking a lot about the hot-button cultural issues this cycle. They’re talking about the size of government, they’re talking about the stimulus bill, they’re talking about health care. Spending is a real issue in Wisconsin. It’s traditionally been a high-tax high-service state, and for that reason, and just because of a conservative streak when it comes to money, deficits and spending have always been real issues here. Even Democrats will traditionally play lip service to those issues; Feingold has portrayed himself over the years as a deficit hawk. Politicians in Wisconsin have been much less likely to brag about bringing home the bacon than they have been to brag about their fiscal conservatism. But this cycle particularly the stimulus and health care and deficits and jobs are front and center.
What are the sideline issues?
CG: Wisconsin is one of the states that is slated to get hundreds of millions of dollars in high-speed rail money through the stimulus plan. Republicans have taken this on—more in the governor’s race—and are running against high-speed rail as a symbol of big government and government spending. If you go back to the governorship of Tommy Thompson, a hugely successful Republican governor, he was famous for building things. It would have been hard to imagine, fifteen years ago, Tommy Thompson—even as a Republican—opposing federal expenditures of $800 million in his state for a high-speed rail line.
How does Johnson’s businessman narrative fit into the national narratives of businesspeople funding their own campaigns?
CG: Johnson loosely fits into that trend, although it’s certainly not new to have self-funded candidates with business backgrounds. Wisconsin has its own example with Herb Kohl, the Democratic senator who got elected in 1998. He’d helped his father grow this huge grocery and department store chain and then owned the Milwaukee basketball team. You’ve got a bunch of candidates like this nationally, some who will be successful and some who won’t. A lot of it will depend on how these men and women are defined by their opponents, and how they perform as candidates. It’s still an open question in Johnson’s case about how skilful a candidate he turns out to be. That’s the most important variable in this race: will voters see him as a businessman with real-world experience, or will they see him as inexperienced, unpredictable, and too conservative.
How are newer candidates like Johnson and Walker handling, or managing, the press?
CG: We’re still learning the answer to that question. Johnson hasn’t been a candidate for all that long. Like other first-time candidates I think his campaign has been somewhat protective of him, but he hasn’t been running a stealth campaign. You’re seeing a certain amount of caution from the campaign in terms of not trying to overexpose him until he’s ready. We’ve been able to reach him when we’ve needed to reach him. He’s talked to our editorial board and we’ve interviewed him as reporters.
LB: In the governor’s race, the Walker campaign is the quickest to rebut charges and backs up nearly everything with a link. Walker is very accessible. The Neumann campaign is slightly slower to respond to both a claim by opponents and press queries, but still with enough time to meet our deadlines. Neumann at times is not available on stories where he thinks he might be painted in a negative light, but instead has provided thoughtful email responses through his press secretary. Neumann and Walker have provided the most detailed policy papers.
The Barrett campaign quickly responds to our queries and to claims by opponents. But Barrett is less available than Walker or Neumann, if we want to talk one-on-one. Barrett’s spokesman works harder to spin the story and complains the most about how we handle some of our pieces. It’s really a question of style or how they approach their job. I have no complaints about any of them. They are all professionals trying to put their candidates in the best possible light.