MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin voters are about evenly split in their opinions of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, as an ongoing investigation into several of his former aides and associates appears to be muting tentative optimism over certain aspects of the state economy, according to poll results released Wednesday.
The Marquette University poll also hints at a challenge for Wisconsin Democrats, who have mounted an effort to recall Walker but who don't appear to have a solid candidate ready to challenge him.
Walker's approval and disapproval ratings both stood at 47 percent, down from a 51 percent approval rating that the same pollsters found last month. The current poll surveyed 716 Wisconsin residents who are registered to vote or said they plan to register. It was conducted from Thursday through Sunday, and had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
There were signs that voters are optimistic about the state's financial outlook. For example, when asked whether they think Wisconsin is a good place to start a business, 72 percent said yes. And in response to a question evaluating legislation passed last year that reduced regulation and offered incentives for businesses to stay or relocate here, 34 percent said the effort added jobs, while 16 percent said it caused a decrease in jobs.
However, three out of four voters have also been paying attention to a grand-jury investigation into several people who were close to Walker when he was the Milwaukee County executive. The investigation has led to criminal charges against five people, and while Walker hasn't been charged with wrongdoing, he has hired two attorneys and said he will meet with the district attorney leading the investigation.
Of the 72 percent of respondents who said they were aware of the investigation, 52 percent said they think it's "really something serious," whereas 40 percent said it's "just more politics."
Walker is being targeted by recall efforts, and his campaign sounded a note of confidence in response to the poll numbers. In a statement, it said Walker kept promises that included closing a $3.6 billion budget deficit without raising taxes or cutting essential services.
"We are confident that because the positive effects of his reforms continue to create more jobs and keep more money in the pockets of taxpayers, voters will reaffirm the decision they made a year ago," the campaign said.
While Walker's divided favorability rating might suggest he's vulnerable, it's not clear the Democrats have anyone to seriously challenge him. For each of five Democrats who have said they'd run against him or have been mentioned as possible challengers, at least 40 percent of respondents said they hadn't heard enough about them to have an opinion.
The two declared candidates are former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
Scot Ross, a spokesman for Falk, said he was heartened by the numbers, even though 47 percent of respondents said they'd never heard of her. He noted that she only entered the race a little more than three weeks ago, and said Walker's numbers were tepid despite heavy spending from out of state supporters.
Joel Nilsestuen, Vinehout's campaign manager, said he wasn't surprised that two-thirds of respondents didn't know enough about Vinehout to form an opinion. He said this is her first run for statewide office and that she's still in the process of introducing herself to the state, but that her early support is "enthusiastic."
The poll does bode well for President Barack Obama's chances in Wisconsin, giving him double-digit leads over each of his four Republican rivals. The respondents, 652 of whom said they were "very likely" to vote, gave the president a 51 percent to 40 percent lead over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; a 53 percent to 38 percent lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; a 52 percent to 36 percent lead over Texas Rep. Ron Paul; and a 56 percent to 33 percent lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The poll also showed Santorum to be the early favorite to win Wisconsin's April 3 Republican primary. Among those who said they plan to vote in the primary, 34 percent backed Santorum while 18 percent backed Romney. Paul was backed by 17 percent of the respondents, while 12 percent supported Gingrich. Another 17 percent said they're undecided.
In Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race, the poll found that former Gov. Tommy Thompson appeared to be the Republican candidate with the best chance of beating Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Respondents favored Thompson over her, 48 percent to 42 percent.
However, Baldwin polled better than former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, 44 percent to 40 percent, and she was ahead of Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, 45 percent to 37 percent.
One problem for Neumann, Fitzgerald and Baldwin is name recognition. About half of respondents said they hadn't heard enough about any of the three.