The 2018 midterms have swept Democrats to a House majority, potentially with grave consequences for Donald Trump’s presidency. A number of races continued to hang in the balance late in the small morning hours, among them the governorship of Wisconsin.
Governor Scott Walker, the Republican incumbent in the race elected in 2010 on a “tea-party wave and anti-union fervor,” looked as if he might hang on. But then he suddenly failed to secure a third term in a nailbiter of an election that stretched late into the night. Democrat Tony Evers was declared the victor early Wednesday morning, with the New York Times reporting a margin of 49.6 percent to 48.5 percent—just enough to avoid a runoff.
Walker, whose two terms as governor are marked by widespread public hostility to his union-busting campaigns and marred by close ties to right-wing dark money groups, should know a little something about coming up short. What was supposed to be an ace up his sleeve, a deal with Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn to build a 20-million-square-foot facility producing next-generation TV screens in the state, became a major electoral liability as costs spiraled out of control and promises of well-paying jobs faded into thin air.
Walker’s initial proposal, first cleared in 2016, was supposed to cost approximately $3 billion in state subsidies in exchange for a $10 billion Foxconn investment and 13,000 new jobs. As the Verge noted, that equated to roughly a $230,000 per job subsidy; a ridiculous sum that would take the state decades to recover in growth if it ever did, but Walker was falling way short of a 250,000 jobs target pledged during his 2010 election.
And then it got worse. The subsidies and associated infrastructural costs to come out of state coffers exploded to $4.1 billion, even as Foxconn downgraded their plans from a Generation 10.5 plant producing LCD panels for 75-inch TVs to a Generation 6 plant building screens for phones and tablets. That would require approximately one third the initial investment, the Verge noted, and Foxconn’s reassurance that it would eventually expand the Generation 6 operation into something resembling the original deal seemed increasingly implausible. The LCD plant was dead, with senior Foxconn executive Louis Woo telling the Journal Times that the project would instead involve an “ecosystem based on our technologies for products that will be coming out from the Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park. So we call that ecosystem AI 8K + 5G.”
At the same time, the operation sparked considerable concern from environmentalists alarmed that one of Walker’s additional concessions was immunity from state anti-pollution regulations—little things like dumping materials into wetlands, re-routing waters, pumping pollutants into the air, and foregoing an Environmental Impact Statement. The plant was also expected to siphon seven million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan, potentially setting in motion a race to the bottom to undermine conservation efforts.
As New York Magazine noted, Foxconn eventually scaled down the plans to the point where it would only be hiring 3,000 workers in the short term, with the vast majority of the work done by robots; it seemed like some of those jobs might even be performed by Chinese guest workers. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Foxconn was even having trouble convincing Chinese staff to relocate to the planned site near Racine:
Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou is looking to company engineers in China to transfer, according to people familiar with the matter. Some engineers have expressed reluctance to relocate to Wisconsin, which is less well-known to Chinese workers than U.S. tech hubs in California or New York.
One engineer who declined to give his name said he wouldn’t want to move to a place he worried could be as cold as Harbin, a northern Chinese city known as “Ice City.”
Racine County isn’t particularly diverse. More than 80% of the population is white, and less than 2% is of Asian origin, according to the Census Bureau.
(Foxconn denied that report, saying it would hire U.S. workers first and was still committed to eventually hiring over 13,000 people by 2023.)
As noted by the Verge, polls over the past year have seen steadily declining public support for the facility, and Walker “suddenly stopped talking about Foxconn,” even leaving it out of his November 2017 re-election announcement speech. Walker bungled the plant, and one of his biggest talking points faded into thin air.
There are innumerable reasons why Walker lost—dramatic cutbacks to schools, attacks on public- and private-sector unions, and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and affordable health care more generally among them, as Mother Jones explains. But Walker’s Foxconn boondoggle played a major role in the loss of his status as one of the GOP’s highest-profile governors. Evers, his inbound replacement, says he’ll disband the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., one of the state agencies involved in the negotiations, and that he’s “going to have to hold Foxconn’s feet to the fire going forward.”