Scott Walker's 2016 Ambitions May Hit 2014 Roadblock

Wisconsin governor tests national appeal with book tour centered around 2012 recall victory.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stands on the North Lawn of the White House after a meeting of the National Governors Association on Feb. 27, 2012 in Washington, D.C.
By + More

Scott Walker's national tour promoting his new book recounting his vigorously contested 2012 recall win is essentially a belated victory lap designed to elevate his stature in anticipation of a White House run.

The 46-year-old Republican governor of Wisconsin has barely hidden the fact he's testing the waters for a 2016 presidential bid, a prospect only enhanced by his success in beating back the historic attempt to remove him from office midway through his term following a knock-down, drag-out fight with the state's public employee unions.

[READ: Some Governors Face Uphill Road to 2014 Re-election]

But standing between him and his unconcealed national ambition is yet another gubernatorial re-election campaign next year -- one that looks surprisingly more competitive than expected, especially given how demoralized Democrats were after Walker ran rings around them 17 months ago.

In the aftermath of that loss, Democrats whispered ruefully about how the recall process had botched their opportunity at upending arguably the most polarizing governor in the country.

That doom-and-gloom assumption has now evaporated in the wake of polling demonstrating Walker's consistent middling popularity and the emergence of a fresh-faced candidate who Democrats appear to be consolidating around.

Walker may already have one eye trained on a larger electoral prize, but operatives on both sides of the aisle are in agreement that his third gubernatorial race could shape up to be his toughest yet.

"This will be a close race for sure. No blowouts will occur here," said Democratic media strategist Jim Margolis, President Obama's adman who is now tasked with helping to defeat Walker.

"I believe he has a fight coming," said Brandon Scholz, a Madison-based consultant and former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

One woman who is certainly betting on Walker's vulnerability is his only announced Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, a 54-year-old former state Secretary of Commerce and school board member who is widely unknown in Democratic activist circles.

A former executive at her family-owned Trek Bicycle, Burke was recruited by Wisconsin Democratic Party officials to run after they conducted dozens of focus-groups designed to identify the traits best suited to contrast with Walker.

Burke checks virtually every box: a woman with a sterling business background and deep roots in the state who isn't a lifelong politician. It doesn't hurt that she's also a multimillionaire already plugging her own money into the endeavor.

"I spent time making sure if I got into it, I could win," Burke said.

But the same novelty that party leaders found attractive in the centrist Burke is raising red flags among some of the most ardent progressive activists in a state known for a historic streak of liberalism. Since her formal entrance into the race in October, assorted liberals have complained about her unwillingness to pledge to roll back Walker's collective bargaining reforms, her company's outsourcing of jobs overseas and her considerable personal wealth.

Grumbling aside, Burke's aides are cautiously optimistic she will avoid a divisive primary and slowly but surely win over skeptics who will swallow their ideological pride in the pursuit of defeating Walker and halting any presidential preparations squarely in their tracks.

[ALSO: Scott Walker Knocks Mitt Romney, Gives Advice to GOP]

In fact, Burke's unwillingness to revisit the collective bargaining issue will presumably make her more marketable to the smidgen of remaining persuadable Badger State voters she'll need to pull off the upset.

"Many moderates have no special interest in that issue, at least any more," said Paul Fanlund, a left-leaning columnist for the Madison-based Capital Times who is urging liberals to back Burke. "Her estrangement from the far left might be helpful later."

A Marquette University poll -- which accurately tracked the outcome of the 2012 recall -- provided additional heartening news for Democrats. Burke trailed Walker by only two points in the late October survey, even though a staggering 70 percent of respondents said they didn't have enough information about Burke to form an opinion.