MILWAUKEE --Tony Evers will try to capitalize on his even-keeled demeanor and background in education as a former teacher, superintendent and now state schools chief to do something no Democrat has been able to achieve in 28 years: beat Scott Walker. Governor Walker and Evers set out across the state on Wednesday, hours after their primary wins.
The attacks are already flying in a race that will be expensive. Walker is painting himself as a far-left politician, while Evers says the governor has broken his promises.
Evers, a cancer survivor who refers to himself as the "progressive from Plymouth," won Wisconsin's eight-person Democratic primary Tuesday and immediately finds himself trailing in fundraising and facing an onslaught of television attack ads. He met with Mandela Barnes, who won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor over eggs and pancakes Wednesday morning at a Madison diner. They said it was the most time they've ever spent one-on-one.
"Yes, this is the first time. We're going to be a great team," said Evers.
Walker is seeking a third term as governor after returning to Wisconsin following his failed run for president in 2016. He set out on a tour of his own, with Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.
"I want to thank all of you for coming out here today. There's a choice -- do you want to keep going forward, or do want to take a giant step backwards? They'd go back to the days of double-digit tax increases, billion-dollar budget deficits and record job loss," said Walker.
"What I make of it is, he's had all sorts of promises that he hasn't kept for the last eight years. In fact, he's spent most of his time breaking those promises," said Evers.
The race will be a test for Democrats trying to reclaim Wisconsin after years of Republican dominance, typified by President Donald Trump's narrow victory in 2016. Walker, who called on fellow Republicans to drop out of the presidential race when he quit to rally against President Trump, eventually backed President Trump and is now a supporter.
As Evers met with Barnes Wednesday, he promised to keep the race focused on issues he said Walker has neglected as governor, saying he "shredded" Wisconsin values the past eight years.
Walker said Evers would try to raise the gas tax by $1 a gallon. When asked about that, Evers said he's open to a gas tax hike, toll roads, or anything else to fix Wisconsin's roads.
"Everything is on the table. All's I know is that what he's done, it's failed. That's the bottom line," said Evers.
Evers campaign manager issued a statement Wednesday in response to Walker's claim Evers would "quadruple" the gas tax:
"Tony Evers has been very clear: he will do what it takes to fix the roads that Scott Walker has allowed to crumble. But he has never said he would quadruple the gas tax.
The fact remains that because of Scott Walker, Wisconsin has the second worst roads in the nation and the average driver is forced to spend $640 a year to fix their cars due to the road conditions. Walker even had the audacity to redirect $90 million from other road projects across the state in favor of his pet project Foxconn, the nation's biggest giveaway to a foreign corporation. Walker's own transportation secretary resigned and said Walker was ignoring facts 'in favor of political spin' when it came to roads funding.
The phony attacks and political posturing are exactly why voters are ready to vote out Scott Walker. They want a governor who will fix the roads and fund the schools, which Walker has refused to do. Tony Evers will fix the problems that Scott Walker created."
Evers also promised to focus on education issues, his specialty.
Walker recently has tried to tout himself as an "education governor," even though his signature legislative achievement in 2011 effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers, and forced them to pay more for health care and benefits.
It so angered teachers that many walked out of their classes to protest at the Capitol and helped organize the ultimately failed effort to recall Walker from office. Evers joined the protests and signed the petition to recall Walker.
Since then, Walker has increased funding for public schools and even Evers praised Walker's last budget, calling it "kid friendly." Evers said he did that because Walker adopted much of what Evers was proposing.
The Wisconsin Republican Party, in an effort to weaken Evers' on education, unleashed a new $500,000 television ad shortly after Evers' victory attacking his handling of a teacher who viewed pornographic material in the classroom, saying he didn't keep children safe. Evers didn't revoke the teacher's license and called the ad "ridiculous."
"It's attack, it's divide and conquer," Evers said of Walker's style. "That doesn't work anymore."
Walker on Wednesday unveiled an outline of third-term priorities without many details. That includes a new $5,000 credit over five years for college graduates who live and work in Wisconsin as a way to reduce college loan debt, a tax credit to help senior citizens afford to live in their homes, and a tax credit to lower child care costs.
Walker also wants to expand apprenticeships available to middle school students and continue a back-to-school sales tax holiday.
Walker, in elected office since 1993, has not lost since his first run for the Wisconsin Assembly as a 22-year-old in 1990, but he's been warning supporters about a pending blue wave if they are complacent.
Democrats are optimistic this year represents the best shot they've ever had at taking out Walker, given recent unexpected electoral successes in the state and a national political climate in a midterm election that typically favors the party not in control.
"I'm almost giddy feeling successful with Evers, that's how much optimism I have," said Madison voter Charlie Campbell, 80, a retired nurse anesthetist.
Walker starts the general election with a huge financial advantage. He had $4.8 million cash on hand in August, while Evers had less than $160,000. But the Democratic Governors Association, which has been working behind the scenes to line up funding and staff for the nominee, has already committed $3.8 million for advertising in the final five weeks of the general election.
The Republican Governors Association has reserved $5.7 million over the final nine weeks.
Evers, 66, has deep ties to the state. Born in the tiny town of Plymouth, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a teacher, elementary and high school principal, superintendent and regional administrator before joining the state education department in 2001. He's been state superintendent, an elected position, since 2009.
Evers is a loud opponent of taxpayer-financed private voucher schools, which Walker supports. He also argues for increased funding for public schools and backed adoption of the Common Core academic standards.
Critics say he's not done enough to address Wisconsin's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap between black and white students, is beholden to the status quo and doesn't embrace alternatives like giving parents a taxpayer-funded voucher to send their children to private schools.
He is a survivor of esophageal cancer, which doctors told him he was cured of in 2012 after extensive surgery in 2008 requiring removal of his esophagus and part of his stomach. It's a cancer that few people survive and that Evers has said he thought would kill him.