First Look: Evers Looks at Tough Re-Election Campaign Amid Polarizing Pandemic

Photo: Tony Evers for Wisconsin

Evers, the former state superintendent, won his bid for governor in a year of Democratic gains in the House while then President Trump’s approval rating was underwater. This time, it is a bit different. President Joe Biden won Wisconsin in November by about 20,000 votes. With a Democrat in the White House, there is a cloud of uncertainty over the midterms, often seen as the first referendum on a President. That uncertainty is what puts Evers in jeopardy. Whether national Democrats, particularly Biden, use their time in power with policies that resonate with voters is yet to be seen, but may make or break campaign in a bitterly divided state like Wisconsin.

Republicans continually rail against controversial Evers’ mask mandates and emergency declarations, citing the lack of need or personal freedoms as their reasoning. Marquette University Law School’s poll showed the public viewed his handling of the Coronavirus in a slightly positive light, with 52% saying they approved of the Governor’s efforts while 45% opposed them. That is a sharp drop from March, when 76% of Wisconsinites approved of his work on the pandemic.

In a state as polarized as it is, any small drop in approval rating spells trouble for the governor. However, there is a silver living for Evers. The most recent Marquette University Law School poll in October showed Evers at 50% approval, in about the same position as Walker in Jan. 2014, when he enjoyed a 51% approval rating.

Several Republicans are eager to unseat Evers. Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is looking at a run for governor, according to Molly Beck of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Others looking at a run include 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, who lost the Republican primary to State Rep. Leah Vukmir and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Beck reports.

The field could swell to something that resembles the 2018 Democratic primary for Governor, where eight major candidates jumped into the race.

Other Republicans that may look at a run include former Rep. Sean Duffy and Rep. Mike Gallagher. Duffy resigned from his seat in 2019, citing the medical problems of his newborn child. He hails from the Northwoods, a heavily Republican area. Gallagher is a veteran and a member of the Main Street Partnership in Congress. He represents Wisconsin’s 8th District, the home of Brown and Outagamie Counties, two counties in which the Republican nominee needs a strong performance.

Wisconsin Democrats seem to be focused on unseating Sen. Ron Johnson with the same priority as re-electing Evers. In a year that may lead to Republican gains nationwide, the strategy may fall flat. The state party may stretch their resources thin between the two races, which could be a concern for Evers’ campaign. In 2018, Sen. Tammy Baldwin cruised to re-election while being a prolific fundraiser. Whether Evers will harness the same energy when it comes to fundraising is unsettled. If Evers’ maintains his popularity among Democrats, that would be good news for his campaign’s war chest.

Evers, regardless of the Republican nominee facing him in Nov. 2022, is facing a tough referendum on his first term that will likely not get easier as time goes on.