MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is best known for what he did three years ago.
The Republican swept into office, immediately passed a bill effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers, withstood huge labor demonstrations at the Capitol, and then became the first governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall attempt.
But now Walker’s bid for re-election in a tight race may hinge on something he didn’t do.
Before he was talking about taking on unions, Walker promised in 2010 that over four years the state would add 250,000 private sector jobs.
“I want my Cabinet secretaries to have branded across their heads, ‘250,000 jobs,'” Walker said at a December 2010 meeting of the Dairy Business Association. “I want them to know their job is on the line because my job is on the line to create 250,000 jobs in the private sector.”
That bravado is long gone.
More than three years into his term, Walker is far short of fulfilling the promise, and he hears about it almost every day on the campaign trail and as talk continues about his potential prospects as a 2016 presidential candidate.
Although the post-recession recovery is adding jobs here, Wisconsin is lagging all but one of nine Midwestern states in that category. The mood of the electorate is uneasy.
In a Marquette University poll last month that showed the governor’s race to be a dead heat, Walker’s approval rating was only 25 percent among independents who were concerned about Wisconsin’s economy — a segment that could be important in a close contest. Walker won election in 2010 by 6 percentage points.
Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has been hammering him on the issue. “In 2010, Governor Walker laid out his jobs plan,” says Burke, who touts her own business experience as an executive at Trek Bicycle Corp. “It was four pages long. And if you took out the pictures of himself, it was more like two. Frankly, I’ve seen eighth grade term papers that have more work put into them.”
Like other Midwest states, Wisconsin’s economy has relied on manufacturing, especially for the auto industry, but those jobs have dwindled. After reaching an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent during the recession, the state rebounded by adding manufacturing jobs at a slightly higher rate than its neighbors.
But Wisconsin has only created about 75 percent as many jobs in retail, financial and business services, leisure and the hospitality industries, according to an analysis by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh economics professor Kevin McGee.
The reasons are murky. Every Midwestern state is scrambling to diversify into more modern industries, with states competing fiercely for new employers.
Though speculative, “the simplest explanation for Wisconsin’s lag in job growth is that a substantial number of Wisconsin consumers were spooked by the changes in the first six months of the Walker administration and reduced their spending. And that lower spending has translated into lower growth,” McGee said in an email.
Other analysts cite the weak economies in Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison. A study by business leaders warned of a “debilitating brain drain of more than 10,000 college graduates per year.”
“Wisconsin’s performance is not impressive either in absolute terms or relative terms,” said Steven Durlauf, a University of Wisconsin-Madison economics professor.
Walker has cited his own reasons, including uncertainty caused by his recall, concerns about the federal health care law and the sluggish national recovery. He emphasizes the 101,000 private sector jobs added on his watch and the low 5.8 percent unemployment rate.
“We’re turning things around,” Walker told Republicans at the state party convention in May. “We’re heading in the right direction.”
Some voters are impatient.
“They can make all the promises they want but some of them are just unrealistic,” said Steve Annen, a 66-year-old retired construction worker who was helping his son fill out resume at a job placement center.
Annen, an independent who says he votes for both Democrats and Republicans, said he’s “worried about my kid’s kids, what kind of shape everything is going to be in.”
But Crystal Lloyd, a nurse and registered Democrat from Marshall, said she doesn’t blame Walker.
“If people get off their butts and look, maybe they can find something,” she said.
Walker thought the current economy would mirror the robust post-recession recovery 25 years ago when he promised the 250,000 jobs. It didn’t happen.
Working with a compliant Republican Legislature, he has cut taxes by nearly $2 billion, saying the lighter burden would help both businesses and consumers. He also eased environmental regulations and made it more difficult to sue businesses.
Although governors often pledge to improve the economy, other factors carry much more weight.
“There’s no credible evidence that anything state governments do intentionally to create jobs actually work,” said McGee.
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