Hearts and Minds

Can Scott Walker Convert the Christian Right?

The governor seems like a perfect darling of social conservatives, but at a closed-door meeting Tuesday, he was forced to defend past comments on marriage, abortion, and LGBT rights.

05.20.15 9:15 AM ET

A few steps from the Capitol building on Tuesday afternoon, behind closed doors in Republicans’ upscale Capitol Hill Club, Scott Walker had a high-stakes sit-down.

The Wisconsin governor—who’s indicated that he will launch a presidential bid after he signs the Badger State’s biennial budget—was there to woo top social conservative and evangelical leaders, a task that might seem easy at first glance. Walker’s dad is a pastor, he quotes a Christian devotional on the stump, and he signed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood in the state he governs. Christian conservatives should be worshipping the ground he walks on, right?

Not so fast. The governor has made a string of comments on social conservatives’ top issues that has earned him some suspicion, and even ire. Last June, a few months before Election Day 2014, Walker had an awkward press conference about same-sex marriage. A district court judge had overturned the state’s constitutional amendment preventing same-sex marriage, and reporters were pressing the governor about his stance on the issue, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports.

“It doesn’t really matter what I think now,” Walker said.

“I don’t comment on everything out there,” he added.

That’s not the kind of answer that opponents of same-sex marriage like to hear. And it came after the governor defended the state’s law keeping employers from discriminating against LGBT people, suggesting to Bloomberg in 2013 that it gave the state “a healthy balance.” One top social conservative leader in Wisconsin told me later that Walker must only have supported the non-discrimination law because “he doesn’t fully understand some of the ramifications of ENDA legislation.”

Walker also raised eyebrows in 2014 when he ran an ad about his stance on abortion, defending legislation that “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor” and saying that while he was pro-life, “reasonable people can disagree on this issue.” Among national pro-life advocates, that line went over like a lead balloon.

So when Walker headed to Capitol Hill to try to win conservative hearts and minds, the leaders in attendance had lots of questions. One attendee said that about 50 top social conservative and evangelical leaders were present, including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, Brian Brown of National Organization for Marriage, Michael Needham of Heritage Action, and Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center.

Dannenfelser said Walker brought up his 2014 abortion ad before being asked.

“He felt very quoted out of context, very misunderstood,” she said. “He said there was a snippet of the ad used that did not convey the full meaning, and his communication was using the other side’s language but with the idea of forging common ground on ultrasound, because he’s a true believer on that.”

Walker signed legislation in 2013 requiring both that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds first and that the doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Dannenfelser said he defended his use of the phrase “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor” as a way of co-opting pro-choice rhetoric for the pro-life cause.

“To the extent that we use the other side’s rhetoric to undermine their positions, we’re better off,” Dannenfelser added.

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She said she was impressed with Walker’s way of talking about abortion.

“It’s the whole style of communication and content of communication that you want to see moving into a presidential cycle that will make it different from 2012,” she said.

The Susan B. Anthony List, she said, is more interested in Walker’s legislative accomplishments than his rhetoric, and the governor assured the meeting attendees that he would sign legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks. For pro-life leaders, that’s huge. If Walker signs the bill—which Wisconsin Republicans introduced this month—then he’ll underscore his dedication to the pro-life cause. But if the legislation fails to make it through the Republican-controlled state legislature and to his desk, his reputation as a politician who can net big conservative wins could suffer.

“He has an opportunity to authenticate his stated convictions, and I have every belief that he’ll do that,” Dannenfelser said.

“My view is that he gets it and he’s got good people around him, and we’re in good shape,” she added.

Other meeting attendees were cagier. Nance emailed to confirm that she attended.

“I think it went well,” she said.

Then I asked if she had thoughts about his stance on same-sex marriage.

“I think people are still trying to discern,” she replied.

Brown was similarly coy about whether Walker has taken a strong enough stance on the question of marriage. He said many of his allies were unhappy with the comments Walker made after the overturn of the state’s marriage amendment.

“That was very disappointing,” Brown said of Walker’s response. “But the reality is he’s come out and endorsed a federal marriage amendment.”

Brown added that his group will issue a pledge on the issue in the coming months to let potential presidential contenders clearly denote where they stand on marriage.

“We are meeting with folks from a number of potential presidential campaigns and folks that have already put their hat in the ring,” he continued, “and the reality is what we’re seeing in Iowa and across the country is the myth that somehow the same-sex marriage debate is over is just that, it’s a myth.”

So Walker’s closed-door meeting doesn’t seem to have backfired. But it isn’t yet clear whether he made converts.