If presidential campaigns were won on paper, Scott Walker would have it made.
There are no fears the governor of Wisconsin is some kind of moderate Northeastern squish, as conservatives paint Chris Christie. He has no kooky libertarian strain, as the establishment fears Rand Paul possesses. He doesn’t preen like Ted Cruz, hasn’t betrayed Republican orthodoxy like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio has.
Instead, Walker took an ax to one of the Republican Party’s favorite bugaboos—government workers, and more important, the labor unions that protected them. Then, when he became a national news story, he stared down liberal celebrities such as Jesse Jackson and most of the nation’s Democratic establishment to strip public sector unions of their right to bargain collectively, pared down their pension and benefit packages, and handily beat back a recall election when they came looking for revenge.
But political campaigns aren’t run on paper. They are run by flesh-and-blood men and women who need to captivate tens of thousands of people to write them checks and work for them, and millions more to get out on a Tuesday and vote for them.
And on that score, on that ineffable quality called charisma, Walker may face his biggest challenges. The governor, who has the kind of fleshy face and imperfect teeth that no Romney would be caught out of the house with, speaks in the flat Wisconsin twang familiar to hockey announcers and Fargo, stumbling over his own words as he goes.
Sitting on the 17th floor of the News Corp building in Midtown Manhattan in a conference room that belongs to the warren of offices of talk show host Sean Hannity, Walker chewed on a mint and explained how he—a rock-ribbed Republican—and President Obama each won Wisconsin by roughly the same seven percentage points.
“There is that core in the middle, as small as it is, that is really just looking for leaders,” he said. “We interviewed people after the election, and what we found was that they were looking for people who are willing to make bold promises and then stick their neck out and lead. It’s not so much, as some have said in Washington, that the Republican Party has to moderate itself, or something like that. My sense is just the opposite. What you need is principled leaders.”
Walker was in New York to promote his book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, and he had been courting conservative donors and blitzing the airwaves to promote it and its central message: that the GOP does not need to move to the center to court the center. He points to Wisconsin, which had a statehouse and a legislature controlled by Democrats until Walker and a GOP majority were elected in 2010.
“There are some cases where you just have to take it to the voters and let them choose,” he said. “A week after the election, I sat down with my caucus and said: ‘You know, the voters of this state changed everything. They have put Republicans in charge. If we come in and are just a little bit different, but not significantly different, if we don’t push bold reform, if we say, ‘Well, we are just going to tweak the edges here,’ then the voters have every right to throw us out. It is put up or shut up time.”
The voters in Wisconsin will get their say soon enough. Before Walker faces the caucus-goers in Iowa or the primary voters in New Hampshire, he will have to win reelection in a state that swings wildly in its voting tendencies. His opponent is most likely Mary Burke, an heir and executive to the Trek Bicycle Corporation, a beloved local company and a secretary of commerce in the administration of Walker’s Democratic predecessor. A recent poll put Burke within the margin of error and gave Walker underwater approval ratings. And it found that by strong margins voters disapproved of his decision to forgo federal money to expand Medicaid and to require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound.
National Democrats, having already failed to dent Christie as he romped to his reelection early this month, are determined to keep another governor out of the 2016 sweepstakes by knocking him off next year. The plan, Democrats say, is to hold Walker to his 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs—he is fewer than 90,000 jobs the way there—and to, in the words of one operative, “make him the poster boy for the war on women” by citing the ultrasound bill and the cuts he made to Planned Parenthood.
Walker said that although he signed the ultrasound bill, it is not something he focuses on.
“I am pro-life,” he said. “When I talk about things, I talk about economic issues, I talk about making it easier for people to find work, I talk about lowering taxes, worker training, things like that. I don’t obsess over those issues. The bill passed the legislature and I signed it. I don’t think it is a bad idea to give people more information about their health-care decisions.”
Democrats, he said, are obsessed with social issues, not Republicans.
“I am obsessed with balancing the budget,” he said. “I am obsessed about the reforms I put in. I think Democrats know they can’t win if the debate is about fiscal issues, so they want to shift the debate at every opportunity.”
No one expects Walker to put up Christie-like numbers. He recently told National Review that his ceiling in the state is about 52 to 53 percent, and he told The Daily Beast that the margin of victory should not matter as the party looks to 2016.
“I mean, I think it is impressive what Chris did—I am not one of these folks who are undermining it, I think it is a big impressive win out there,” he said. “But I think what is more important is what you accomplish what you get done.”
Indeed, Walker is far from undermining Christie. At a time when the other likely 2016 contenders have begun sniping at the New Jersey governor, Walker can sound at times as if what he really wants is to be Christie’s running mate. The two went to the Giants-Packers game on Sunday, and their kids, who are roughly the same age, are friends, Walker said.
Asked by reporters recently if Christie, the head of the Republican Governors Association, was a conservative, Cruz just walked away silently. Rubio has noted the obvious, that Christie is capable of winning big in a blue state like New Jersey, which must be a sign that he is acceptable to Democrats there.
Walker would have none of it.
“I mean, Chris is a conservative,” he said. “There may be tweaks on some issues here or there, but all 30 Republican governors are more conservative than Romney was. People say [Christie] moderated his position. He didn’t moderate his position. He is a strong, outspoken conservative. They forget about all the videos of him going after the teachers unions, or the pension reform he got through.”
At times Walker even sounds as if he wants to be Christie’s deputy at the Republican Governors Association. The Wisconsin governor devotes substantial portions of his book to how forceful the GOP crop of state executives is compared to their counterparts in Washington.
“I think people are fed up with Washington,” he said. “I think they have had it with both parties, and they would like to have leaders who are not only from outside of Washington but have had proven success at improving things at the state level.”
The wiser heads in the Republican Party agree. They say the rank and file are so sick of Washington that it is hard to imagine the party nominating someone from the House or Senate.
Walker “doesn’t have a 202 area code on his cell phone, so he won’t have any of that stink on him,” said Dave Carney, who helped guide Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. “He has a different story than everyone else. Everyone can talk about their battles, but the whole country watched him win his battle on live television.”
In Washington, if the last couple of years have shown anything, it is that taking on big fights is a fool’s errand. Just look at Rubio, who was considered the front-runner for 2016 until he tried and failed to pass an immigration bill. Republican voters seem to prefer the futile gestures of standing alone in the Senate chamber, à la Paul and Cruz. But Walker is betting that when the time comes to vote, Republicans will pull the lever for a person who gets things done.
“A Republican governor like Walker is going to be able to point to his accomplishments,” said Craig Robinson, editor in chief of the popular Iowa Republican blog. “What do you say if you are in Congress? ‘I was really critical of the president? I had a great one-liner at a dinner that one time?’”
But if Republicans are looking for an outsider, Walker is in many respects a funny choice. Voters are unlikely to point to Wisconsin as a shining counter-example to complaints that Washington does not work, what with the chaos that Walker’s moves triggered, including a handful of Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state.
“I don’t think people mind people that fight for things as long as they get results. They think people in Washington are fighting for the sake of fighting and they get nowhere,” Walker said. “In our case we took on big fights, no doubt about it. I don’t think people think that whoever is in that position should just bring everybody together and not have any challenges. We took on big fights, and not only did we win, but the reforms worked.”
Walker also credits Christie’s popularity with his response to Superstorm Sandy. The Wisconsin governor begins Unintimidated in similar dramatic fashion, describing the protests his union-busting bills unleashed as if the state capitol in Madison was under siege. (Sample: “The protestors ran amok, chanting, ‘This is our house!’ and ‘This is what democracy looks like!’ And they began searching for Republican senators who had dared to defy the will of the unions. As they combed the building for the offending legislators, the police snuck the senators and my staff out through an underground tunnel…”)
Asked if he intended to become the national face of the anti-union campaign, Walker made a noise that sounded like a piece of rotting garbage had just been waved under his nose: “Ew.”
He said he didn’t campaign much for the issue before the vote: “I didn’t want to look like I was picking on public employees, which, obviously, is ironic,” and he reframed the issue in populist terms. It was either cut pensions and benefits or lay off workers and divert money from schools and infrastructure.
“I think private sector unions are fine,” he said. “I am not anti-union. I am pro-taxpayer. So what we did with public sector unions was like Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to do with public sector unions, which was to put the power in the hands of the hardworking taxpayer and the people duly elected at the state and local level.”
That figure, the hardworking taxpayer, is who Walker’s camp thinks he can appeal to more than any of the other GOP hopefuls, and not just because of his record as governor. He is, in many ways, the anti-Romney, someone whose regular-guy persona bleeds through everything he does. Christie has “regular guy” down, too, but with him, he has it so far down that it risks becoming shtick. Walker just seems like the Midwestern guy who is so normal no one even notices it. He has a Saturn with 100,000 miles on it and still brings the same bag lunch—two ham and cheese sandwiches—into work every day.
He tells the story of coming to New York for meetings soon after the chaos in Madison, only to be accosted by a brash New Yorker on the street, who told him, “Hey, Scott Walker! You are scum!” and went on to berate the governor about how he had traveled to Madison to protest him. For Christie, it would have been a YouTube-ready moment.
“I am a Midwesterner. I turned around and said hello.”