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In Wisconsin gubernatorial race, Minnesota's economy becomes policy evidence

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The Democratic challenger trying to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is directing voters' gaze westward, toward Minnesota, with a message to voters in her own state: The grass over there is greener, but it shouldn't be.

Mary Burke, a businesswoman and former commerce secretary, is holding Minnesota up to Wisconsin like a funhouse mirror, the Star Tribune reports, pointing out the economic gains made in the North Star State over the past four years while questioning why Wisconsin has seemingly fallen behind.

"There’s nothing that says we shouldn’t be beating the pants off Minnesota. We just need better leadership,” Burke said while campaigning in La Crosse last week, according to the Star Tribune.

Different political paths

The year 2010 signified a split in direction for both states, creating what a New York Times op-ed dubbed "a natural experiment that compares the agendas of modern progressivism and the new right."

Mark Dayton took control of the governor's office by defeating Republican candidate Tom Emmer, becoming the successor to Republican Tim Pawlenty (who opted not to run for a third term). While the Legislature was divided in 2010, the DFL took over in 2012.

In Wisconsin that same year, the conservative Walker won the gubernatorial race, defeating Democrat Tom Barrett 52 percent to 46 percent. The previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, did not run for a third term.

In the state Legislature, Republicans took control of both houses.

Since 2012, Minnesota has passed what the Times called "some of the most progressive policies in the country," increasing taxes (specifically targeting top earners), legalizing same-sex marriage and embracing the Affordable Care Act with its own insurance exchange, MNsure.

In Wisconsin, Walker immediately began slashing taxes, and aggressively targeted labor unions. He quickly became a target of pro-union groups, but survived a tight recall effort.

What's happened since then

Minnesota's economic numbers have improved dramatically. The unemployment rate has continued to drop in recent months, and currently sits at a nearly eight-year low of 4.3 percent, one of the better marks in the nation.

The Times op-ed, published nearly a year ago, noted Minnesota is tied for the fifth-fastest growing state in the country, has seen private sector job growth reach levels not seen since before the recession, and was ranked by Forbes as one of the best states for business. In addition, the embrace of MNsure (despite the exchange's troubles) cut the state's uninsured rate by about 40 percent.

Over the summer, Burke said the typical Wisconsin worker makes $5,000 less than those in Minnesota – a statement Politifact Wisconsin rated as "Mostly True."

Wisconsin's economic numbers haven't been as upward moving. Walker promised 250,000 additional private sector jobs in his first term – he's currently at 102,000 Politifact Wisconsin determined, with just months left (a stat which Burke has been quick to mention on the campaign trail). Wisconsin's most recent jobless rate was at 5.6 percent in August – still below the national average of 6.1 percent, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

The Washington Post dug into the numbers and placed Wisconsin 32nd overall nationally in terms of net change in job growth – and behind Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Missouri if you just look at the Midwest.

FOX 9 notes Wisconsin was one of only five states whose economy shrunk while the states around it, including Minnesota, grew.

How this plays out day-to-day for residents of both states is something the New York Times tackled in a January piece, which focused on the lake-separated cities of Duluth and Superior. The story looks at the states through a handful of different filters – union rights, social issues, insurance, taxes, jobs, and more – and traces where the divide came from over the past four years.

“It’s staggering, really, like night and day,” Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, told the paper. “You’ve got two states with the same history, the same culture, the same people — it’s kind of like they’re cousins. And now they’re looking across the border and seeing one world, then seeing something else entirely on the other side.”

One of the few recent indicators Wisconsin ranks ahead of Minnesota is in private sector job growth. A recent quarterly census tapped Minnesota's growth there at dead last in the Midwest, the Star Tribune reported, behind Wisconsin.

Political paths

And now, one hopeful Wisconsin candidate (Burke) is using those differences to pitch voters on why she's a better choice than the incumbent (Walker).

Real Clear Politics describes the race between Walker and Burke as a toss-up, based on the very small margins in recent polls.

Both candidates hope to get a boost from a couple national bigwigs that visited Wisconsin Monday.

First Lady Michelle Obama was at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee to support Burke.

FOX 6 noted that while President Barack Obama's popularity is down, Michelle Obama still sports a 61 percent approval rating.

“When folks ask me whether I still believe everything we said about hope and change back in 2008, I tell them that I believe it more strongly than ever before — because I've seen it with my own eyes,” she said Monday, according to the station.

Burke also asked those in attendance to "leave it all out on the field," implying votes are what will ultimately count.

Near the Minnesota border, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was in Hudson, drumming up support for Walker. Christie, according to WCCO, said he doesn't see Walker's term as divisive, saying the failed recall effort resolved that.

"The thing Scott's been able to do over the last four years is to lower taxes, see more jobs created here in Wisconsin, and make everyone feel like tomorrow in Wisconsin will be a better day," he said, according to FOX 9.

Christie is scheduled to be in Minnesota Oct. 13 to campaign for Jeff Johnson – the party-endorsed Republican candidate in the gubernatorial race against Dayton.

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