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Gwen’s Take: Getting to 2016 by surviving 2014

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  August 29, 2014 at 7:05 AM EST

It’s been a runaway treadmill of a summer. If it hasn’t been protests in the Midwest, it’s been planes dropping out of the sky in Ukraine. If it hasn’t been rockets and missiles raining down in the Middle East, it has been border confrontations in the American Southwest.

You can be forgiven for forgetting there is a midterm election underway.

But Labor Day is nigh, and voters are facing an array of pretty interesting choices this fall. In two states, rising Republican stars who were busy building national profiles in anticipation of 2016 have suddenly been forced to refocus.

Both are Republicans who infuriate their foes at home, but have become political rock stars far beyond their state borders.

In Wisconsin, Marquette University Law School published the results this week of a new neck-and-neck poll between Republican Governor Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting on March 29 in Las Vegas. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting on March 29 in Las Vegas. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Just 19 months after first being elected, Walker survived a recall election in 2012 after championing expanded voter identification and cutting collective bargaining rights for state employees. But he and Burke are in a tight race, trapped within a 3.5 percent margin of error among both registered and likely voters.

It is clear much of the surprising tightness has more to do with Walker than Burke. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) told me the story of bringing Burke to a black church on a summer Sunday. The worshippers clapped politely when Burke was introduced by name; then erupted wildly when she was identified as Walker’s challenger.

And only this week, Burke won the endorsement of Democracy for America, a political action committee founded by former DNC Chair Howard Dean, which had barely a word to say about Burke herself. “After working for years to defeat him[Walker],” the press release read, “Democracy for America members in Wisconsin and across the country can’t wait to knock on every door and make every phone call necessary to send Mary Burke to Madison and end Scott Walker’s political career once and for all.”

A similar tableau may be playing out in Florida – but with a twist. “It really is an only-in-Florida kind of story,” Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith told me.

Charlie Crist hugs his running mate Annette Taddeo-Goldstein as they win the Democratic primary for the Florida governor's race Aug. 26.  Photo by Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

Charlie Crist hugs his running mate Annette Taddeo-Goldstein as they win the Democratic primary for the Florida governor’s race Aug. 26. Photo by Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

There, former Republican Governor Charlie Crist — now a Democrat — is teeing up for a run against another polarizing incumbent — Republican Rick Scott.

For most of his first term in office, polls have ranked Scott as more unpopular than popular. That helped Crist launch a campaign to rebrand himself as a Democrat allied with President Obama. As with the Walker-Burke race in Wisconsin, Democrats are hoping voters can be persuaded to cast an anyone-but-Scott vote.

But Scott, a wealthy man who spent tens of millions of dollars getting elected the first time, is spending freely again — closing the popularity gap by casting Crist as a turncoat. RealClearPolitics now rates the race a tossup.

I’m not sure it’s especially good for politics in general to be reduced to voting for the person you dislike the least. In fact, such choices — often rendered even more visceral by floods of negative advertising — could serve to depress turnout.

And in a close race, that could determine the margin of victory. That’s all the more reason to pay attention to the political shoes that are about to drop this fall.