Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no stranger to political fights to the death. Wisconsin tilts more blue than red. While Gov. Walker and Sen. Ron Johnson rode a Republican wave to election in 2010, President Obama won the state twice. As a conservative in a swing state, Gov. Walker has always lived on the edge of electability.
After pushing tough union reforms into law, Walker became the first governor in the history of the United States to survive a recall election in 2012. He won that race by seven points. This year, Walker faces a tough re-election fight. The latest poll has Walker in a dead-heat with Democrat Mary Burke, a former Secretary of Commerce in Wisconsin and successful executive at the family-owned Trek Bicycle Corporation.
In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and Tweeting attention spans, critics on bothsides of the aisle have panned the “permanent campaign” where the politics of the next five minutes trump policy and principles. With their recall effort, Wisconsin liberals have forced Walker into the perpetual campaign. But, unlike others, Walker declines to play by those rules.
A Republican candidate running in a bluish state is typically advised: move to the middle. But that’s not Scott Walker. Instead, the New York Times reports, Walker is “talking tough” and pitching a plan to drug test Wisconsinites seeking food stamps or unemployment benefits. “The American dream isn’t how long you can sit on your couch watching TV or playing Xbox every day when you should be working and you can,” Walker told a crowd recently. This follows reports that third-party groups are supporting Walker with ads targeted to African-American voters in Wisconsin that focus on Walker’s pro-life stance and school choice.
Two important moves are afoot here. First, unlike many politicians, Gov. Walker would rather be himself and lose than shift with the wind and win. That’s a message with bipartisan appeal. You cannot run from who you are, and voters can whiff insincerity miles away. For most voters, disingenuous is a deal breaker.
Think John Kerry, “I actually did vote for it, before I voted against it.” Better yet, recall the famous John Kerry wind-surfing ad from 2004. On the flip side, think Mitt Romney. Political consultants, no matter which side, love unprincipled opponents with positions that shift with the wind. Rather than persuade voters from both sides of an issue, wishy-washy candidates tend to alienate all sides.
Second, it seems there’s a big bet here. Gov. Walker knows that if he wins with this strategy, he has a powerful story for the presidential stump, “I’m the guy who took a conservative message to a swing state and won. Liberals threw everything they had at me three times in four years, and I never wavered from my conservative principles. To me, doing the right thing is more important than doing the expedient thing. Elect me president and I’ll bring the same attitude to Washington.”
With this campaign theme, Gov. Walker appeals to both the philosophical and the practical. Republican primary voters don’t want candidates who abandon their principles every other October. With his track record in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker appeals to ideological Republican voters looking for a candidate whom they believe will keep their campaign promises. Party pragmatists want a candidate who will win in November. If he beats Burke, Gov. Walker has ample evidence he can toss red meat in blue states and still win general elections.
If he wins, Gov. Walker may quickly move from dark-horse to front-runner. Consider the others:
Mitt Romney – Not likely to run and yesterday’s news.
Chris Christie – Upside-down in recent polls of New Jersey voters, tarnished by Bridge-gate, and Second Amendment groups will likely oppose.
Rand Paul –Wildly popular and has the best chance to expand the Republican base, but his isolationist tendencies on foreign policy will present serious problems in the primary.
Ted Cruz –Recent reports suggest some Republican Senate candidates in tough general election campaigns have asked him to stay away. Cruz excites conservatives, but he’ll have to show he can deliver swing-states in November.
Marco Rubio – Checks almost all the ideological boxes, and the electability box. However, he lacks Walker’s executive experience. Indeed, Rubio, Paul, and Cruz may all suffer from comparisons to President Obama – running for president, without executive experience, before completing a single full term in the United States Senate.
Jeb Bush – May not even run. He would likely vault to the top of the list, but: is the Republican base ready for another Bush?.And his support of Common Core may present a problem.
Mike Huckabee – Already threatened to split from the Republican Party and his liberal positions on economic issues betray basic GOP principles.
If he wins, Gov. Walker will be the only candidate in the field with executive experience and nearly perfect scores for ideological purity and electability. That’s a tough combination to beat.