Scott Walker is certainly ambitious, and planning a run for president may seem par for the course. But for a long time—most of the 1990s, in fact—Walker was content to be a backbencher in the state assembly and didn’t do much to advance himself up the party ranks. While the seniority he gathered in his state assembly career (1993–2002) from his safe Republican district just outside Milwaukee allowed him to chair some committees, the most attention-grabbing thing he did was to protest the hiring of a Wiccan as a chaplain in a state prison.
The idea that he would become governor of Wisconsin, let alone run for president, was not something anyone observing the political scene at that time would have contemplated. In the midst of a tedious assembly floor session, Walker might well have imagined he could occupy the Oval Office one day. But it took waves of changes in Wisconsin’s economy and culture, ideological reversals within the Republican Party, and even political scandal to get him to a point where he could be taken seriously. Whether he can go farther than the governor’s office may depend, like so much of his career, on forces beyond his control—but so far he’s succeeded by positioning himself as a contrast to the dominant political figures of his time, figures like Tommy Thompson, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
In the Wisconsin of the 1990s there simply wasn’t much of a market for Walker’s brand of supply-side/austerity economics and social conservatism, outside of a handful of electoral districts. All across the state new schools were being constructed or older ones remodeled, the result of a unique stimulus program in which districts agreed to set a limit on property taxes in return for generous state aid, which they put towards building projects. This was part of the “Main Street” conservatism espoused by Tommy Thompson, the Republican who was governor throughout the decade.
Like Walker, Thompson began as a backbencher—first elected to the state assembly in 1966, he rose to become the top Republican in the legislature and then governor for a record 14 years. The difference between Thompson and Walker is one of background. Thompson is from the small rural town of Elroy, the son of a schoolteacher mother and gas-station/country-store-owning father. Thompson was never opposed philosophically to government largesse—either spending or tax credits—to stimulate a rural economy subject to the boom and bust cycles of agriculture and mineral extraction. Flush times in the 1990s filled state coffers and made such spending possible without busting the budget, and those opposed to it in the legislative backbenches kept their opinions to themselves. As long as Thompson maintained his Catholic opposition to abortion, showed a commitment to welfare reform, and kept winning elections, he was safe far as his position in the Republican Party went.
Walker, the son of an itinerant Baptist preacher, comes originally from the highly evangelical community of Colorado Springs, Colorado and didn’t even live in Wisconsin until the age of 10. The city of Delavan, where the Walker family settled, was transitioning from rural farming community to Milwaukee exurb during the 1980s just as they moved in. This was the milieu in which Walker grew up, and it helped shape his political outlook. So did his later involvement with the Young Republicans while attending Marquette University; his experience representing the “edge city” of Wauwatosa in the heavily segregated Milwaukee metro area (according to 2010 Census figures, Wauwatosa is 90 percent white) in the state assembly; and seeing the area’s conservative politics and activism come to be dominated by a group of talk-radio hosts—Mark Belling, Charlie Sykes, Jeff Wagner, and Jay Weber—at two Milwaukee AM stations. These stations get their ratings and make their money not from the city but from the suburban and exurban regions around it—places like Delavan, for example. Places where a good proportion of state’s voting population was residing by 2001.
That was the year things began to change in Wisconsin—and for Walker, still a backbencher at the time. Thompson left the governor’s mansion to become secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration. Wisconsin’s economy began a long period of stagnation with the recession of 2001, and a series of political scandals gave Walker the opportunity to make his way in the larger political world on his own terms. In 2002 a county pension-fund scheme that paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to long-time employees and cost millions to taxpayers forced the recall of several Milwaukee County board members and prompted County Executive F. Thomas Ament to resign rather than face a recall election himself. At the same time, Thompson’s heir apparent—not his hapless lieutenant governor and gubernatorial successor, Scott McCallum, who was quickly turned out of office by Democrat Jim Doyle in 2002, but then-state assembly speaker and former Thompson chief of staff Scott Jensen—was charged with political corruption.
Despite the county’s Democratic lean, in this climate Walker was able to win a special election for Milwaukee County Executive as a non-partisan reformer—literally, since all of the state’s county offices are non-partisan. Thereafter he relied on the low turnout in county races to ensure his re-election, while he leveraged his position as head of the state’s largest county for his eventual statewide run. Jensen, meanwhile, spent much this time fighting the charges against him in court, and the effort drove him out of politics altogether by 2006. The GOP lost power in the state government and fell into shambles. The leadership vacuum cleared the way for Walker’s rise, helped by allies like Congressman Paul Ryan and state party chairman and eventual RNC head Reince Priebus.
Walker made it a point to return half his salary as a full-time county executive back to general fund, but even in this he was out of step with Republican Party of the early 2000s. This was the era of George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Global War on Terror that sprung from it. It was also the era in which another Midwestern Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, was demonstrating what an activist “big-government conservative” could do at the state level. But Walker didn’t embrace the ethos of Bush or Pawlenty, and by hewing to a limited-government ideology he positioned himself to take advantage of what was to come within the GOP and in the aftermath of the Bush years. Indeed, had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not turned out badly, had the bailouts of 2008 not taken place, and had the disappointment of conservatives towards the Bush administration not been so intense, Walker would still be a local political figure, if that.
Barack Obama has inadvertently helped Walker as well. When Obama won the 2008 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary over Hillary Clinton by whopping 58–41 percent, the election took place in February. Traditionally the state’s presidential primary had been held on the first Tuesday in April, coinciding with county elections. But state officials moved the primary up two months to have more influence on the race. This turned out to be the biggest break in all of Walker’s career. Had the primary been in April, turnout for Obama might well have pulled State Senator Lena Taylor, a black Milwaukee Democrat, ahead of Walker in that year’s election for county executive. Instead, the county-executive election was held in April, and the low turnout meant Walker won re-election overwhelmingly.
This wouldn’t be the last time Obama aided Walker’s political career. The unpopularity of Obamacare in 2010 unleashed a Republican wave that swept Democrats out of power in Wisconsin and gave Republicans full control of state government for the first time since 1996, with Walker as governor. Obama’s unpopularity in 2014 no doubt contributed to Walker’s re-election. The polarization of the electorate in southeast Wisconsin, while no doubt starting earlier, crystalized the moment the non-white Obama took office. The suburbs and exurbs of Milwaukee in between Madison, Green Bay, and the Illinois border have always been the most conservative parts of the state. But where a progressive, liberal candidate could formerly win about 35 percent, maybe over 40 percent in a good electoral year, the vote totals collapsed in 2010.
Now such candidates can do no better than 25–30 percent in the region, especially in the “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington to north and west of Milwaukee, where Republican voting percentages now reach between 70 and 80 percent and turnout rivals that of the Democrat strongholds of Dane (Madison) and Milwaukee Counties. It used to be a political axiom in Wisconsin that if a Democrat running for statewide office carried more than 60 percent of the vote in Milwaukee County, he would win automatically. Today it doesn’t matter. Walker’s 2014 opponent, Mary Burke, carried 63 percent of the vote in Milwaukee County and over 70 percent in the city.
Are these new voting propensities due to race, as some have suggested? Well, Bill Clinton, a polarizing political figure in his own right, carried the usual liberal percentages in the “WOW” counties while being re-elected in 1996, and the Milwaukee AM talk show hosts have been on the air for over well two decades, without bringing about any real changes in voting patterns until a nonwhite person was elected president. The racial segregation of residential housing in the Milwaukee region is among the highest in the United States. There is a legacy of racial strife going back to open-housing marches and riots in the 1960s, and tensions between blacks and the city’s police force continue to this day. Conservatives, however, can point out that they eagerly cast their votes for the black sheriff of Milwaukee County, David Clarke, who shares Walker’s political views.
Perhaps the new electoral trends are best understood as votes against what Milwaukee represents as a big city seen from the vantage point of those outside it: crime, disorder, welfare, unemployment, political militancy, you name it. Thus current Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett found out the hard way in two straight losses to Walker—in 2010 and the recall election of 2012—why it’s difficult for any big-city mayor to become governor of his home state, and why no Milwaukee mayor has ever been elected governor of Wisconsin. This is why the politics of southeast Wisconsin has become much like the politics of southeastern Michigan, even if Milwaukee has avoided the dramatic decline that a fellow Rust Belt city like Detroit has gone through. One of Walker’s first acts as governor was to cancel contracts to build a light-rail line connecting Milwaukee to Madison, with stops all through the western Milwaukee suburbs. Was this an act of economy—Walker has long been an opponent of mass transit, and the state was facing a huge budget deficit—or racial tribalism since minorities may well ride such lines from the city into the suburbs; or both since, as in so many of these circumstances, economic and demographic interests coincide?
One thing Walker will not have to do while running for president is apologize to the Republican base for anything he did in office. This is what the Pawlenty had to do in 2012, on account of his “big-government conservatism” in word and deed from 2003–2011. His record put Pawlenty’s campaign in a vise, squeezed by fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann on the right and similarly moderate governor Mitt Romney in the center. Pawlenty was four years too late for his campaign, while Walker has timed his just right. Not only has Walker benefited from the Tea Party crusade against deficits, spending, and cronyism—themes he’s used throughout his career—he has done so while never having to be a merely Tea Party candidate. He’s had the full support of the party establishment, as it is now constituted in Wisconsin, since 2009, and thus he can have his feet in both the establishment and activist camps without being compromised. Nor will he have to worry about an in-state rival, as Congressman Ryan has deferred to Walker’s ambitions, whereas Bachmann—more independent and Tea Party in her outlook and manner—would not defer to Pawlenty’s.
Wisconsin has provided lucky breaks for Walker in other respects as well. He benefits from the fact that immigration to the state has been relatively low, so he’s never had to make controversial policy decisions about immigrants. Social issues outside of race have never been a contentious part of Wisconsin politics, so there’s nothing he’s done or said from a policy standpoint that would be extra baggage to him with moderate voters—indeed, during the 2014 campaign one of his commercials made it sound like he was in favor of safe abortions, something no doubt done to limit defections among female voters to his opponent, Mary Burke—while he still maintains his credibility as a religious conservative. And as governor, he’s never had to take any stands at all on foreign policy, which allows him to simply adopt whatever the GOP consensus is on the topic. If the various factions of the right are looking for a “unity” candidate against a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, they can hardly go wrong with Walker.
But for all the ways in which Wisconsin’s peculiarities have aided Walker’s ambitions, the state capitol protests of 2011 and subsequent recall effort in 2012 over the state budget’s Act 10 nearly torpedoed his dreams. Act 10, also known as the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” cut benefits to state employees and limited the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions, all in an effort to make up a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall. Other governors had closed budget gaps through a variety of means; that Walker and his allies did so in this way was a choice made for a political purpose: to cripple those public-employee unions that were staunch supporters of the Democrats—which is why the state’s firemen and police were exempted from Act 10; they had endorsed Walker. The protests and the recall elections that followed were certainly unexpected, and they ultimately cost three Republican state senators their seats—briefly giving Democrats control of the state senate in the fall of 2012—along with contributing to the landslide defeat of Walker’s candidate for Milwaukee County Executive and the near defeat of a conservative state supreme court justice in his re-election bid in the spring of 2011.
But Walker himself survived because he correctly judged that middle-class residents in a mostly middle-class state—especially those working in labor-intensive fields like manufacturing, construction, and mid-sized farming—would not be sympathetic to government workers, whose “Cadillac” health plans and pensions were supported by taxpayers who themselves no longer enjoyed such benefits and believed they never would again in a globalized economy with private-sector unionism reduced to almost nothing. As the working class of the 1930s became a broad middle class after World War II, they lost their sense of solidarity and became divided by other concerns—racial, ethnic, religious, ideological, and so forth. And in the midst of the Great Recession, holding on to what you had while making sure your neighbor didn’t get the leg up on you with your own taxes became the driving concern for a majority of the state’s voters. Thus Act 10 turned into a middle-class civil war, and those living in rural and mid-sized Wisconsin communities—where the state’s balance of power rests—sided with the governor (as did the courts, which have upheld the law). “Divide and conquer,” as Walker himself said candidly to a supporter in an exchange caught on video.
Walker was re-elected as governor in 2014—the 20th anniversary of the “Republican Revolution” in which the GOP won the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. That was the point at which the Republican Party made the transition from being the “presidential party” to being the “legislative party.” After controlling the White House from 1969–1993 with only a four-year interruption, the GOP has now been in control of the House of Representatives from 1995–2015 with only a four-year interruption. But the problem with being the “legislative party” when the other side occupies the White House—as Democrats have done for all but eight years between 1993 and 2015—is that you may not be accomplishing anything from a policy standpoint, only blocking the president’s initiatives.
Walker’s strength as a presidential candidate comes from the fact that he’s a “doer” when it comes to policy. As Michael Tate, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, told The Capital Times in Madison, even if most Wisconsin voters “don’t fully agree with, or like, what [Walker’s] done, they believe that he is a person of action. And they feel that unlike other politicians, Scott Walker is not afraid to stand up and do something and they respect that.”
He remains a polarizing figure: his re-election share of vote was only 52 percent, and he hasn’t demonstrated he can win a statewide election with voter turnout above 60 percent. (Turnout in Wisconsin averaged 60.93 percent over the last six presidential elections, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and surpassed 70 percent in 2012.) But none of the other Republican contenders can easily face such numbers either, which is why the GOP is the still the legislative party. And in a state where a famous football coach once said, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” Scott Walker has given his party all it could ask for—which might be what Republican voters nationwide are looking for, too.
Sean Scallon is a journalist living in Arkansaw, Wisconsin.