True Believer: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Walker has proved to be an effective leader in one of the most polarized states. But how will the conservative governor’s record in Wisconsin translate to a presidential bid?
by | July 2015
(Reuters/Jim Young)

Devil’s Lake is a gorgeous remnant of the Ice Age. Glaciers long ago gouged out quartzite bluffs that rise up as high as 500 feet above the water. At a billion-and-a-half years old, they are among the oldest visible features on the planet. More than a million people every year come to the lake to hike, rock climb and camp, making Devil’s Lake the most popular state park in Wisconsin.

Scott Walker wants all those visitors to pay for the privilege. In his budget this year, the Republican governor called for eliminating funding for state parks altogether, a move that would create the nation’s only entirely fee-based system. Walker also moved to cut the science staff at the Department of Natural Resources in half while putting the state’s land stewardship program on a long hiatus, blocking the state from acquiring any new public lands until 2028. “I’m actually surprised he’s permitting the park fees to be increased, because he doesn’t let the fees increase in transportation,” says Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “There aren’t a lot of programs that he and his followers think of as public duties or public goods.”

It’s common these days for Republicans to be skeptical about government spending, but Walker presses the issue further than most. There hardly seems to be a program he wouldn’t prefer to cut. Since his election in 2010, Walker has done whatever he can to shrink the size of Wisconsin’s footprint and call a halt to the state’s progressive traditions. He has refused large pots of money from the federal government -- not just the Medicaid expansion called for under the Affordable Care Act, but also $810 million for high-speed rail linking Madison and Milwaukee with Chicago. Those decisions have meant fewer dollars for the Wisconsin economy, but Walker believes the state will be better off in the long run because it limits the size of the public sector.

It’s the same deal with tax cuts. If they result in a deficit -- and the state started out the year facing a $2 billion shortfall -- that provides a rationale to cut spending. It’s a virtuous cycle for conservatives. “His budgets, including this latest one, really are precisely what libertarians and economic conservatives are looking for,” says Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University. “In some ways, it’s a dream come true.”

Austerity hasn’t been Walker’s only concern, though. He remains best known nationally for blocking collective bargaining for most public employees. But there’s hardly an item on the conservative checklist that Walker hasn’t already crossed off. His budget this year called for recipients of public aid, whether food stamps, Medicaid or job training, to undergo drug screening. Walker has imposed new restrictions on abortion and voting, while expanding gun owners’ rights. He has promoted school vouchers and managed to privatize many government functions, including the state’s economic development agency. “It’s been a paradise for privatizers here,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a liberal watchdog group. “Walker doesn’t believe in anything public.”

Walker’s time in office has been catnip for conservatives. Nothing makes voters angrier than politicians who talk a good game during campaign years but fail to act on their agenda once in office. Walker has delivered. That’s what’s made him an early frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. “We’ve elected wonderful speakers, but they haven’t done what they said they were going to do,” says former GOP state Rep. Michelle Litjens. “Gov. Walker stands true to what he believes.”

Even as his stock rises nationally, however, there are already some indications that Walker’s popularity and influence are waning at home. Some of the positions he’s adopted to appeal to GOP voters in early presidential primary states haven’t played well in Wisconsin. Still, up to this point Walker has been a hugely successful governor. Not only has he pushed the envelope on many issues in terms of what a GOP governor might do, but he’s managed to do it in a state where his party’s strength, historically, has not been overwhelming. Wisconsin is the birthplace of the GOP, but the state hasn’t supported a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan. Now Walker is a top-tier White House prospect himself. “In terms of setting himself up for his run,” Nolette says, “he’s done things almost perfectly.”

Walker was a Tea Party politician before there was a Tea Party. He was a conservative member of the Wisconsin Legislature while still in his 20s. He later seized an opening to become Milwaukee county executive, jumping in after the incumbent resigned amid a pension scandal. When the Republican wave pushed Democrats out of power in 2010 -- they’d previously held the governorship and both legislative chambers -- Walker was ready. He’s always had great timing and an acute political antenna. “He recognized that this is, for a conservative, a historic opportunity,” says Mark Belling, a talk radio host in Milwaukee. “Walker sensed that now is the time to do as much as he’s possibly able to do.”

Milwaukee has perhaps the most robust local talk radio culture outside the South, and that has been an enormous boon to Walker. As county executive, he called into Belling’s show and others like it nearly constantly. Since Walker became governor, Belling and other hosts such as Charlie Sykes have served to amplify Walker’s messages. The Wisconsin Gazette, a progressive alternative newspaper, once complained, “They’re working every bit as in tandem as the Chinese synchronized women’s swimming team.” Lee calls Walker a “child of talk radio. He grew up on the talk radio hosts here in the Milwaukee radio market. In his stances, whether state Assembly, county executive or governor, he has never, ever broken with talk radio.”

It makes perfect political sense that Walker reflects and carries out the dreams of what is sometimes uncharitably called the conservative echo chamber. In a highly partisan era, Wisconsin is arguably the most polarized state in the country. Its sharp political divisions predate Walker. A decade ago, legislative staffers were reprimanded if they dared eat lunch with people from the other party. But under Walker, the battle lines have become even more distinct. Everyone in Wisconsin has chosen sides. “He made it worse by trying to mobilize his own base and attacking the other side,” says Torben Lütjen, a political scientist at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany who is writing a book about polarization in Wisconsin. “He’s not interested in winning over the 2 or 3 percent on the other side that he could convince.”

That was true from the earliest days of his administration, when he moved to end collective bargaining rights for most public workers, triggering massive protests in Madison and ultimately leading to expensive recall campaigns against Walker and numerous state senators. Walker may have been motivated by the frustrations he’d felt dealing with unions as county executive, but it was also clear he didn’t mind targeting groups with strong ties to the Democratic Party. Democratic senators fled Wisconsin for a time in an effort to prevent the body from being able to vote on Walker’s labor package due to the absence of a quorum. “Walker has helped to polarize the state,” says Democratic state Sen. Fred Risser. “He has become a focal point. You put his name onto something and it results in people either loving it or hating it.”

Walker, of course, survived the 2012 recall election, becoming a conservative folk hero -- and building up a national fundraising base -- in the process. He loves to brag about having won three elections in four years in a purple state, but it looked for a time like he might not make it. Walker had made jobs the centerpiece of his 2010 run, promising to create 250,000 more. During his first term, Walker joked that his cabinet secretaries should have “250,000 jobs” tattooed on their foreheads. By last fall, though, Wisconsin had seen just over 100,000 new jobs since the start of his term, providing his Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, with her primary point of complaint.

But Walker, backed by millions of dollars from outside groups, managed to squeeze out every vote he needed in the more conservative parts of the state. His worst critics grudgingly acknowledge his political skills and stamina. For all the ire he raises among Democrats, Walker comes across as mild. In this regard, he’s the anti-Chris Christie, the New Jersey GOP governor known for his bluster and public displays of anger. As a politician, Walker is incredibly disciplined. He never loses his temper, he’s never provoked and -- although he may stumble at times -- he never strays off message. “On any issue I’ve been involved in, he has never lost this public grip he has on himself,” says Belling. “I don’t know what gets at him, but you don’t see any expression of emotion at all.”

Walker is incredibly disciplined, observers say. He never loses his temper, and he rarely strays off message. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

An underrated aspect of his skill is framing his positions carefully. For all the clarity of Walker’s convictions and the star power a staunchly conservative program has brought him, the governor still carefully manages to convey different messages to different sets of ears. When a judge threw out the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Walker let it be known he wasn’t delighted, but he also refused to make a big deal about it. “It doesn’t really matter what I think now,” he said at a news conference. During last year’s campaign, when asked whether he’d serve out a full term, Walker said, “I love being governor,” adding he was staying focused on his plans for Wisconsin over the next four years. Some people heard that as a pledge. He stopped short of making any such commitment, however. His words were carefully parsed, so he didn’t break any promises by opening a campaign office in Iowa almost immediately after the election.

Repeatedly, during last year’s campaign and earlier, Walker had said he hoped the legislature would not send him right-to-work legislation, designed to prevent workers from being forced to pay union dues. He said it would be a “distraction.” Just a few weeks before last year’s election, Walker said, “I’m not supporting it in this session.” Again, this left voters with the impression that Walker opposed a right-to-work law. But Walker never did say he was dead set against such a policy. In fact, he had co-sponsored a right-to-work bill during his first year in the Assembly. As governor, he was recorded on video telling a wealthy supporter he planned to pursue a “divide and conquer” strategy by going after collective bargaining for government employees first, before taking on unions in the private sector. When a right-to-work bill reached his desk in March, Walker didn’t hesitate to sign it. Afterward, he promptly sent out fundraising letters for his presidential campaign highlighting his support.

There’s at least one issue on which Walker has made it perfectly clear he’s changed his mind. As recently as a couple of years ago, Walker supported a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally. No more. “My view has changed,” he conceded in March. “I’m flat out saying it.” In fact, Walker has adopted what is among the hardest-line stances on immigration in the GOP field, talking about the need for new limits on legal immigration. He’s also ended his one-time support for the Common Core education standards.

He’s made himself more than just acceptable to voters within the various silos that make up the current GOP coalition. He’s a first choice for many of them. Far more of the nation’s top 250 Republican donors have given money to Walker than any of the party’s other presidential hopefuls. Fiscal conservatives applaud his tax cuts. Chamber of commerce types like his unyielding support for business interests. Although social issues have been less of a focus for Walker in Wisconsin, he speaks naturally to evangelicals as the son of a Baptist preacher. “He’s authentic,” says Lütjen. “The resentment that he has against liberal elites is real. It’s not something he made up.”

Walker eats lunch at his desk out of a brown paper bag every day. For all the complaints lodged by his political enemies that Walker has sold out the state to corporate allies -- members of his staff, at both the county and state levels, have come under investigation for cronyism and campaign finance violations -- Walker has not enriched himself during his long public career. In fact, his personal debts outweigh his assets. National media outlets may sniff at his lack of a college degree, but that missing credential doesn’t bother his supporters. Walker is not like some member of the Bush family trying to hide an Ivy League education, or Mitt Romney struggling to pretend he’s not a gazillionaire. “He’s a real guy,” says Litjens, the former legislator. “He doesn’t come from a political class.”

Walker's many out-of-state trips are impacting his relationship with the legislature. (David Kidd)

Democrats now frequently lambaste Walker for being an absentee governor. The state party has paid to put up billboards in Milwaukee and Green Bay, calling on the governor to “come home.” That’s only to be expected from an opposition party expressing its disdain when its least favorite son seeks the White House. But the trips Walker takes, from Iowa to Israel -- he’s spent about half his time outside the state this year -- do look like they’re starting to have an impact. During his first term, Republican legislators gave Walker everything he wanted and didn’t send him anything he didn’t. That’s changed. Whether it’s his absence from Wisconsin’s grand capitol building or the fact that his heart is transparently set on a job in Washington, members of his own party exhibit less fear about crossing someone who’s already a part-time governor. “They don’t feel like they’ve got to dance to Walker’s tune as much as they did before,” Rothschild says.

The governor has called for sizable cuts to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, but he had to back off from a plan to change its mission statement. Legislators balked at his intention to turn the university’s governance system over to a public authority model, which was widely seen as a step toward privatization. Lawmakers similarly didn’t warm to his billion-dollar borrowing plan to pay for infrastructure, and they also converted his proposed $127 million cut to K-12 education into an increase. Republicans hold 12 of the 16 seats on the legislature’s joint budget-writing committee, but they voted to give back public broadcasting half of the funds Walker wanted to cut. They also stopped short of giving the governor what he wanted in terms of eliminating the state cap on school vouchers. “It’s almost like he’s made himself a lame duck,” says Lee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor.

Walker may push all the right buttons for Republicans nationwide, but his approval rating in Wisconsin has dropped sharply since he won re-election. Job creation has lagged behind neighboring Minnesota month after month -- for six straight years now. Democrats despise Walker, but he’s also managing to make at least some Republicans unhappy. His environmental ideas are a case in point. Walker proposed changing the citizens board that oversees the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a toothless advisory panel. Hunters didn’t like the plan, which weakened his standing with that group, and the legislature didn’t buy into it either. “Even some very strong supporters of Walker have come out against it,” says George Meyer, a former DNR secretary.

There were other missteps. A new off-reservation casino in Kenosha promised to create hundreds of jobs, but Walker squelched the project in January -- the day before his star-making speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit. Approval wouldn’t have played well with the social conservatives who hold the key to success in the Republican caucuses in Iowa. Walker angered conservatives with a proposal to float $220 million worth of state bonds to help underwrite a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. He ended up having to cut the state’s share of the deal to $55 million. “I joke on my show that the one state where Walker is not popular with Republicans is Wisconsin,” says radio host Belling.

You can’t please everyone. And Walker hasn’t really tried, making it clear that he’s going to side with his fellow conservatives on every issue. His success in actually carrying out conservative desires has made him a top contender in the 2016 race. But his desire to push all the buttons of early state primary voters has led him to make some choices this year that haven’t sat well with those constituents who would have to live with the consequences of his policy choices. “His approval ratings in the state have really started to crater,” says Marquette professor Nolette. “Obviously, that’s not his main concern at this point.”