Fox­conn still an elec­tion wild card in Wis­con­sin

Project’s suc­cess or fail­ure likely to af­fect Trump, Walker

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Craig Gil­bert

Some Repub­li­cans once thought Fox­conn would clinch Scott Walker’s re-elec­tion.

Some Democrats once thought it would back­fire mas­sively on him.

Nei­ther one of those things hap­pened. Walker lost his 2018 re-elec­tion race, but Fox­conn was well down the list of rea­sons why. It cer­tainly didn’t help the Repub­li­can gover­nor. But there is lit­tle ev­i­dence it was “the rea­son” he lost ei­ther.

Now we’re en­ter­ing a new po­lit­i­cal phase in the Fox­conn story. As the com­pany’s plans and pub­lic state­ments shift, the project is be­set by grow­ing doubts and un­cer­tain­ties over whether it will ever de­liver the jobs that were promised.

Fox­conn still very much looks like a wild card in Wis­con­sin pol­i­tics in the com­ing years – es­pe­cially if it turns out to be an em­bar­rass­ing dis­ap­point­ment. The po­lit­i­cal back­drop and the sta­tus of the project it­self have al­ready shifted since last year. And they will prob­a­bly keep shift­ing over time.

Wis­con­sin now has divided govern­ment in­stead of one-party rule, mean­ing the credit or blame for Fox­conn’s fail­ure or suc­cess go­ing for­ward is go­ing to be sub­ject to fierce par­ti­san dis­pute.

Walker, the politi­cian most closely iden­ti­fied

with Fox­conn, is no longer in of­fice. But he still has po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, so it’s con­ceiv­able that Fox­conn’s fu­ture will have an ef­fect on Walker’s fu­ture.

And then there is Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who is deeply in­vested in the suc­cess of a project he touted as sym­bol of Mid­west man­u­fac­tur­ing re­vival. How the project fares over the next year and a half has ob­vi­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the pres­i­dent’s re-elec­tion prospects in Wis­con­sin, a key elec­toral bat­tle­ground.

But be­fore ex­plor­ing Fox­conn’s role in fu­ture elec­tions, let’s re­visit its role in the last one, which is still de­bated.

Some have ar­gued the Fox­conn deal ($4 bil­lion in pub­lic sub­si­dies in ex­change for 13,000 jobs) was so un­pop­u­lar it cost Walker his job.

One prob­lem with that ar­gu­ment is that when an elec­tion is de­cided by roughly one point and less than 30,000 votes, you can make the case that al­most any­thing “de­cided” the elec­tion. Did the is­sues of ed­u­ca­tion and school fund­ing cost Walker the elec­tion? Did health care? Did roads? Did Walker’s own failed pres­i­den­tial bid? Did Trump’s weak­ness with sub­ur­ban vot­ers and the way he gal­va­nized Demo­cratic vot­ers to turn out in op­po­si­tion? It’s very easy and very plau­si­ble to imag­ine each of these fac­tors, by them­selves, ac­count­ing for Walker’s roughly 30,000-vote deficit. And most of them – maybe all of them — were ar­guably big­ger fac­tors in the 2018 elec­tion than Fox­conn was.

The pub­lic polling on Fox­conn of­fers some take­aways about the role the is­sue played in 2018 and the role it may play in the fu­ture. Statewide opin­ion about the deal was a lit­tle more neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive for much of 2018.

But it was es­sen­tially neu­tral on the eve of the elec­tion. In the fi­nal 2018 poll by the Marquette Law School last Oc­to­ber, 40 per­cent of likely vot­ers said the project would be “worth” what the state is pay­ing the com­pany in sub­si­dies. A slightly higher share – 42 per­cent — said it would not be worth it.

In a sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis of his polling, Charles Franklin of Marquette found that the Fox­conn is­sue did move a small share of vot­ers in each di­rec­tion – it pushed some pro-Fox­conn vot­ers to­ward Walker and pushed some anti-Fox­conn vot­ers to­ward his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, cur­rent Gov. Tony Evers (con­trol­ling for big­ger fac­tors like a voter’s party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion). But the over­all ef­fect was vir­tu­ally a wash.

“It’s con­ceiv­able that it cost Walker frac­tions of a per­cent­age point, (but) I do not be­lieve it’s con­ceiv­able it cost him the en­tire mar­gin (he lost by), when you con­sider all the other is­sues that were also at work in the race,” said Franklin.

Nei­ther side be­haved as if the Fox­conn is­sue gave them an un­qual­i­fied ad­van­tage, since it wasn’t a ma­jor theme of their ad­ver­tis­ing. And the re­gional vot­ing pat­terns last Novem­ber don’t seem con­sis­tent with the idea that Fox­conn cost Walker the elec­tion.

Com­pared to 2014, Walker per­formed bet­ter in much of north­ern and ru­ral Wis­con­sin, where vot­ers were more skep­ti­cal about Fox­conn and were more re­moved from its pre­dicted eco­nomic ben­e­fits. Mean­while, Walker did worse than he had done in 2014 in the GOP-lean­ing coun­ties of south­east­ern Wis­con­sin, where vot­ers were rel­a­tively pos­i­tive about the project.

Vot­ers were dug in along par­ti­san lines over Fox­conn, which prob­a­bly lim­ited its im­pact on the elec­tion, and could limit its im­pact on fu­ture elec­tions. The project was so strongly as­so­ci­ated with Walker and Trump that it’s no ac­ci­dent that al­most 70 per­cent of Repub­li­cans last year thought it was worth the pub­lic in­vest­ment, but only 15 per­cent of Democrats did.

What does that par­ti­san di­vide mean go­ing for­ward now that we have divided govern­ment in Madi­son?

It cre­ates some chal­lenges for both par­ties. When the story broke in re­cent weeks that Fox­conn was mov­ing even fur­ther away from the no­tion of a ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter, GOP leg­isla­tive lead­ers quickly blamed the new Demo­cratic gover­nor. But busi­ness lead­ers and Fox­conn failed to echo that line. Then af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with Trump, Fox­conn lead­er­ship said it was stick­ing with plans to build dis­play screens in Racine County.

For Repub­li­cans, at­tack­ing Evers on Fox­conn means con­ced­ing the project is fail­ing to de­liver as promised, which Repub­li­cans don’t re­ally want to do, since they are so closely iden­ti­fied with it. At the same time, Demo­crat Evers, as gover­nor, doesn’t want to be seen as tor­pe­do­ing the project, even though Democrats over­whelm­ingly op­posed it in the first place.

These dy­nam­ics could muddy the po­lit­i­cal wa­ters on Fox­conn go­ing into the next two elec­tion cy­cles. So too could the on­go­ing con­fu­sion over the project’s fu­ture.

Con­sider a few po­lit­i­cal sce­nar­ios.

One is that de­spite the mount­ing doubts and skep­ti­cism, Fox­conn ends up ac­tu­ally de­liv­er­ing lots of jobs – in other words, that it’s a “suc­cess.” Yet that prob­a­bly wouldn’t be clear for years. And you would still have con­tro­versy and po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sion over the cost to tax­pay­ers.

An­other sce­nario is that Fox­conn flat out fails to de­liver any­thing like the $10 bil­lion in­vest­ment, 13,000 jobs and mega-man­u­fac­tur­ing hub that was touted by Trump and Walker when they gath­ered at the White House in the sum­mer of 2017 to an­nounce the project – in other words, that it’s an un­am­bigu­ous fail­ure.

But let’s say the project makes enough short-term progress that its “fail­ure” isn’t widely or fully ab­sorbed by vot­ers for years, lim­it­ing its im­pact on Wis­con­sin elec­tions in the next few po­lit­i­cal cy­cles.

A third sce­nario is that the project fal­ters quickly enough that pub­lic opin­ion swings more sharply against Fox­conn be­tween now and the 2020 elec­tion. That would spawn a fierce de­bate be­tween the par­ties over who is to blame, though Wis­con­sin Repub­li­cans have ar­guably more to lose un­der this sce­nario since it was a deal struck by GOP of­fice­hold­ers.

The one politi­cian with the most at stake in Fox­conn’s short-term fu­ture is prob­a­bly the pres­i­dent. Wis­con­sin is a crit­i­cal state for Trump in 2020. He put Fox­conn at the cen­ter of his push to re­vive the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor in the in­dus­trial Mid­west and im­prove the for­tunes of blue-col­lar work­ers, mak­ing it a po­ten­tially pow­er­ful cam­paign sym­bol of first-term suc­cess or fail­ure.

As noted above, Fox­conn was a sec­ond-tier is­sue in the cam­paign mes­sag­ing by both sides in the 2018 mid-terms here.

But in 2020, de­pend­ing on how the Fox­conn story un­folds, it’s easy to imag­ine ei­ther Trump or his op­po­nents putting it at the fore­front of the pres­i­den­tial race in Wis­con­sin.

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