MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Next Tuesday, voters in 36 states will choose governors. About a third of those races are considered toss-ups - super close contests. We're going to check in on a few of those tight races this week, and we start today in Wisconsin. Polls show the Republican governor, Scott Walker, in a dead heat against his Democratic challenger, Mary Burke.
Craig Gilbert joins me to talk about the dynamics of the race. He's national political reporter with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Craig, welcome to the program.
CRAIG GILBERT: Nice to be with you.
BLOCK: And let's start with the Democrat, Mary Burke, a former state commerce secretary, an executive at Trek Bicycle and now on the Madison School Board. And today she got a boost at a campaign rally in Milwaukee with President Obama. There are not a lot of Democrats who want to be seen campaigning with the president, but clearly Mary Burke does.
GILBERT: President Obama came in to really the heart of the African-American community in Milwaukee to a high school that is located in a voting ward where the president got 99 percent of the vote in 2012 against Mitt Romney. He's here for a very specific task, which is to sort of drive turnout. Democrats really rely on a big turnout from the two cities of Milwaukee and Madison to win elections. And they've had much more success turning out their base in presidential elections than they've had in midterms.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the Republican incumbent, the governor Scott Walker. He drew national attention with that bitter fight against public-sector unions in Wisconsin and then the failed effort to recall him in 2012. Why is Walker having to struggle to hold onto this seat?
GILBERT: Well, you know, one thing that we've seen in all the public polling is that, as divided as the state was in the middle of that kind of raucous recall fight, it's even more divided now. It has not got - there hasn't been a lot of healing in Wisconsin. And Governor Walker hasn't really added to his coalition, politically, since those elections. And if you think about 2010 being a really conservative wave election, and you think about 2012 - winning a recall where some voters, you know, had reservations about Governor Walker but didn't like the recall process - you can sort of see how this election really ought to be closer than those two elections and is.
BLOCK: You have written, Craig, that there's been about $16 million spent on broadcast ads in Wisconsin and that voter perceptions really haven't budged about either candidate, despite all that money.
GILBERT: I mean, this is one of those races where opinion is so dug in about the governor, and you can even see it in his opponent's numbers. I mean, Mary Burke was an unknown coming into this race, but she's been, sort of, a 50-50 candidate, you know, when she was unknown, and people are just as divided over her as she's become better known because what they're really divided about is the governor.
BLOCK: Scott Walker, of course, has been considered a likely Republican contender for president in 2016. Craig, do you figure he still is even if he retains his seat but wins it only by a narrow margin?
GILBERT: Well, I think he's viable if he wins it by a narrow margin. I think the better he does in this election, I think, the easier it is for him to sort of make the argument that here I am, a governor who governed as a conservative in a purple state. That's his story, and if he wins he can tell that story. If he loses, he can't.
BLOCK: Well, Craig Gilbert, thanks very much for talking with us.
GILBERT: It's a pleasure.
BLOCK: Craig Gilbert is national political reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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