Politico‘s story about Gov. Scott Walker’s election wins for state Assembly, Milwaukee County executive and governor is called “Tales from Scott Walker’s Graveyard”:
Scott Walker’s path to the 2016 presidential race is littered with the bones of vanquished opponents.
Since 1990, the Wisconsin governor’s name has appeared on a ballot 14 times, and he’s failed just twice — a winning record that’s central to his pitch to Republican primary voters. Along the way, he’s left a trail of defeated challengers, many of them gripped by resentment toward a foe they recall as crassly opportunistic, loose with facts or blindly ambitious.
Yet for all the lingering enmity, as Walker prepares to announce his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, his rivals also grudgingly respect him as a rare and exceptionally canny politician who’s constantly underestimated and always outperforms expectations.
He’s a sneaky-smart campaigner, they say, a polished and level-headed tactician, a master at reading crowds. He learned the value of ignoring uncomfortable questions, rather than answering them. In hindsight, the many politicians he pancaked on the road to the national stage — in races for the state Assembly, county executive and governor — almost invariably see his career as an elaborate practice run for the White House.
To David Riemer, who fell to Walker in a 2004 bid for Milwaukee County executive — a nonpartisan race — Walker’s wiles can be summed up by a single moment during one of their debates. Riemer, sensing Walker’s desire to run for higher office, recalled placing a sheet of paper on Walker’s lectern that included a pledge to fulfill an entire four-year term. Sign it, Riemer demanded.
Walker sensed the trap right away.
“He just let it sit in front of him. He didn’t get it back to me. He didn’t rip it up. He didn’t turn it into a paper airplane … he ignored it,” Riemer said. “He understood very well, one of the key lessons in political life is they can’t print what you don’t say.”
Walker dispatched Riemer, mocked his rival’s pledge in a press release and less than two years later ran in the 2006 Republican primary for governor.
The 47-year-old Republican often points to the fact that he’s been on the ballot just about every two years since 1990 — including three victorious races for governor — as proof that he’s battle-tested and prepared to grind out yet another long campaign. He’ll launch his presidential candidacy as the front-runner in Iowa, which holds the first contest of the 2016 GOP primary season in February. He’s led the pack there since delivering a well-received speech at a January GOP gathering. Since then, though, he’s muddled through some tougher months, stumbling during his early forays into foreign policy and maintaining a lower profile than other top competitors, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
Walker’s two most recent and prominent opponents — Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and businesswoman Mary Burke — declined to comment for this story. But a former senior aide to Burke, Walker’s Democratic challenger for reelection in 2014, suggested Walker’s struggles this year have been “bigger and more noticeable” than any he faced during the gubernatorial campaign. At the same time, Democrats shouldn’t be complacent. “I think there is a risk in underestimating him,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Walker’s skills.
The danger of underestimating Walker is a common theme among the candidates and operatives on the losing side. Another senior Democratic adviser in one of Walker’s statewide races warned that his foes shouldn’t be lulled by Walker’s uneven start in presidential politics.“He’s got antennas,” said the adviser, who also requested anonymity. “He’s the real deal. As time goes on, you’ll get more of that vibe as you cover him. He can come across as a little arrogant, obviously. But with real people out there, he’s really, really good. He’s just in touch with what they’re looking for.”
Walker’s opponents remember him as so unflappable and message-disciplined that he rarely created a stir. He was always polite behind the scenes at debates, said Lena Taylor, who said she appeared jointly with Walker 24 times when she tried to oust him as county executive in 2008, only to lose by close to 20 percentage points. Others recalled their off-camera interactions with Walker similarly. He’d always talk about his family, chitchat about the Packers or the Brewers sports teams, never say anything antagonizing.
“He’s personable,” said Taylor, now a Democratic state senator. “He’s comfortable with the person on the farm. He’s comfortable with the person in the boardroom.”
Taylor has no love for Walker — she refers to him as “polarizing” and “an extremist” who often touts the fact that he’s the son of a Baptist preacher to wriggle out of uncomfortable spots. Her advice to Democrats if he ends up as the nominee? Don’t expect him to commit unforced errors.
“He is used to speaking and speaking publicly, so don’t expect him to be someone, who even when it’s not going well, to get off-kilter,” she said. “He stumbles, we all do. But he’s a guy who’s going to be more even-toned. Use that to your advantage, Mrs. Clinton.”
While a handful of his challengers from the past two decades have passed away, the first and only Democrat to ever get the best of Walker is still around and promises to be a vocal Walker critic: Rep. Gwen Moore.
Moore beat Walker handily in a 1990 state Assembly race, the governor’s first-ever bid for elected office. He later moved to a more conservative district to relaunch his political career. Moore’s distaste for Walker runs deep: She describes him as smooth and talented, but also considers him ruthless and slippery.
“As a matter of fact, before I met him, some of the Republicans that I had made friends as a freshman shared with me that this man stands in front of a mirror for hours and practices,” she said.
Looking ahead to November 2016 with Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, Moore urged Democrats to goad Walker into making insensitive comments — even if those same tactics failed to unsettle him last year against Burke. “He’s been very successful, but he’s going to have a hard time beating a woman that’s tough,” Moore said. “She needs to be prepared for someone who doesn’t care who he maims, cripples or kills for his ambition.”
Walker’s first national test will be in a race more crowded and fractious than any he has faced before — he’s faced relatively few truly close elections, and fewer still within his own party. In the only statewide race he’s ever lost, he dropped out of a 2006 primary for governor. Aside from that, his toughest intraparty fight came in 1993 — his first political victory — in a special election to fill a vacant Wisconsin Assembly seat. Walker won a five-way Republican primary that year, a victory that reports at the time credited to his support from anti-abortion troops.
Mary Jo Baas, who finished fourth in that race with about 600 votes, told POLITICO that she and two of the other Republican competitors discussed joining forces to beat Walker, who was the clear front-runner. But they couldn’t agree on which two of them should drop out, leaving Walker atop a splintered field, winning with less than 2,600 votes.
Today, Baas — whose surname was Paque at the time of the special election — says she’s glad she didn’t block Walker’s path. “I think when he ran for Legislature and county executive and governor and now president, people have continually underestimated him,” she said. “If I had known how good he was, I wouldn’t have run. When he talked to a group of people, people felt like he was one of them. He knew what connected, what resonated.”
Now, as she watches her onetime rival vie for the nation’s highest office, Paque sees vestiges of the same energetic campaigner he was in 1993, a sign, she said, of trouble for his Republican competitors.
“I could summarize my advice for people running against him,” she said with a laugh.
People underestimate Walker like they underestimated Assembly Minority Leader Tommy Thompson when he ran for governor; his Republican rival called him “a two-bit hack from Elroy.” People misunderestimated George W. Bush as a baseball-team owner. And, of course, Ronald Reagan was just an actor. The four people in this paragraph total 10 election wins for governor and four presidential election wins.
Walker’s message discipline is remarkable, as is his unflappability in public. I’ve seen reporters try to bait him and fail. He’s participated in debates and never once, as far as I’m aware, stumbled significantly. He is going to say what he plans to say, and no more than that. He’s not known for off-the-cuff remarks, which the media prefers but which get candidates into trouble.
Aaron Goldstein predicts that you will have to replace the title “governor” with “president” because …
1. He’s Part of the Middle Class (or He Actually Shops at Kohl’s and Sears)
It was after Walker spoke at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January that his popularity began to soar outside of Wisconsin. As much as anything else, I think what resonated with the crowd and those who watched the speech on C-SPAN or online is when he spoke about shopping at Kohl’s:
But years ago as newlyweds I made a critical mistake. I went to a Kohl’s Department Store and I bought something for the price it was marked at. Right? My wife said to me, “You can never go back there again until you learn how to shop at Kohl’s.” So now if I’m going to pick up a new shirt I go to the rack that says it was $29.99 & I see it’s marked down to $19.99. And then because I’m well trained I got that insert from the Sunday newspaper and I took it up to the clerk with my Kohl’s credit card and get another 10 or 15% off. And then I watch that mailer because, man, Tonette shops there a lot so I know I’m going to get another 10 to 15% off. And if I’m really lucky I get that flyer with 30% off.
Somehow I don’t think Ann Romney ever told her husband that he had to learn to shop at Kohl’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with being wealthy. But when money is no object it can be difficult to understand that most of us are subject to the mercy of money. The fact is, the lives of most Americans are centered around the fact we don’t have enough money. Mitt Romney couldn’t grasp this in 2012 and I don’t believe most of the current Republican field gets it either by virtue of their prosperity.
In late April, the New York Daily News tried to make an issue of Walker’s credit card debt with Sears. William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection responded to the report in the Daily News in this manner:
The latest attack on Walker is that he has “up to” $50,000 in credit card debt to — wait for it — Sears.
We don’t know exactly how much because financial disclosures only are made in broad ranges, so it could be as little as $10,000.
Regardless, it’s SEARS!
As the only presidential candidate with a negative net worth, Scott Walker is in that boat with the rest of us. Nearly all presidential candidates speak of the middle class, but in Scott Walker we actually have a candidate who is a part of the middle-class.
2. He Didn’t Graduate from College
Remember when the media tried to make an issue of Walker not graduating from college? As Susan Milligan argued in U.S. News & World Report:
But should we not demand this basic credential from the person we empower to run the country, start wars and negotiate with foreign leaders? If employers demand college degrees — and for no other reason than that they can, not because the job itself requires a college education — then why not impose this minimum requirement on the leader of the nation?
Last I checked some fellow from Missouri named Harry S Truman didn’t graduate college, much less attend. Yet he did a fine job when it came to running the country, in his case ending a war and negotiating with foreign leaders, and is considered among the best to have held the office of President of the United States.
Granted, Truman left office more than six decades ago and times have changed considerably since. But what hasn’t changed is that most Americans don’t have college degrees. In fact, it’s 60% of Americans. Another 22% attend college, but don’t graduate for a variety of reasons as was the case with Walker. So when the media tried to make an issue of the fact that Walker didn’t finish college they effectively insulted the intelligence of 8 out of every 10 Americans.
This isn’t to say that higher education is without virtue. Should Walker be elected President he will need the advice of people who are learned in economics, the military, health care and other matters. But a higher education doesn’t guarantee common sense. President Obama might have once edited the Harvard Law Review, but in more than six years in office he has proved the late William F. Buckley’s adage that he would “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” I am sure if WFB were still alive that he would firmly place the Wisconsin governor among the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory even if his last name begins with W.
3. He Talks to People Not at Them Nor Does He Need to Shout to Make His Point
Some politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, love to hear themselves talk. In so doing, they end up talking at people instead of to them. That isn’t Scott Walker. As demonstrated in the first point about shopping at Kohl’s, when Walker talks about public policy he does so in a manner to which nearly everyone in the audience can relate.
There are some issues that are difficult to talk about in a rational way because of the deep emotions they arouse. We have seen this over the past couple of weeks on the subject of immigration, particularly with Donald Trump’s comments about Mexico sending criminals to the United States.
For his part, Walker has spoken candidly about reducing immigration levels. But he has done so without characterizing illegal immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. It is debatable whether reducing immigration levels is our best policy approach. But if the invective can be kept out of it, then it is a discussion worth having and if anyone can keep the discussion civil it is Scott Walker. …
4. He Chooses His Battles Wisely
Although the President of the United States wields enormous power, he or she cannot use their power on every matter. At a practical level, some matters are best left to local and state governments while other matters are best left out of the hands of government altogether. Do we really want another President who while openly admitting he doesn’t have all the facts nevertheless accuses a local police department of “acting stupidly”?
A mark of a wise and effective elected leader is the ability is to govern when necessary and with the support of the majority of the people. When Scott Walker reformed collective bargaining in Wisconsin’s public sector, he did so because it was necessary and he did so with the majority of his state’s people behind him. The result is controlled costs, more money in the hands of state workers, and greater local control. When President Obama overhauled the U.S. healthcare system he did so unnecessarily, without the support of the majority of Americans and he couldn’t have cared less. The result is higher premiums, less insurance coverage and less access to medical care.
Which would you choose?
5. He Can Appeal to Conservatives and Non-Conservatives Alike
Scott Walker appeals to conservatives not only for his stand on collective bargaining reform, but for signing into law right to work legislation, concealed carry measures, and his efforts to increase vouchers for school choice.
But the conservative vote alone won’t be enough to elect a Republican President. Would Ronald Reagan have been twice elected President without the help of Reagan Democrats? Walker certainly isn’t the only Republican with conservative bona fides, but he is arguably the only Republican who can also appeal to non-conservatives. In order for a Republican to win the White House he is going to have to convince enough people who voted for Barack Obama twice to take a leap of faith.
Now I’m not talking about hardcore left-wing activists here. Rather I am talking about the majority of people who do not think about politics on a day-to-day basis but care enough to show up on Election Day. They will vote Democrat by default, but can be persuaded to vote Republican by the right candidate. Can anyone imagine Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, or Ben Carson carrying a blue state like Wisconsin? After all, Walker has been thrice elected Governor in a state that twice voted for Barack Obama and hasn’t gone Republican since, well, Ronald Reagan.
This isn’t to say that Walker is the new Reagan. Such a thing does not exist. There is only one Ronald Reagan. But what Walker does possess is a calm demeanor and an ability to communicate directly with people, which enables him to come across as a reasonable person who will carry out his duties in a competent manner. Scott Walker is the kind of Republican who can resonate with people who might not ordinarily vote Republican.
6. He Can Withstand the Liberal Hate Machine
Whoever wins the GOP nomination can expect the liberal hate machine, a coalition of the Democratic Party and the mainstream media, to vilify the Republican standard bearer as a racist, sexist, homophobe who cares only for the rich and wants to throw elderly grandmothers off cliffs. …
I don’t know if Walker has skin made of Teflon, but it is certainly thicker than that of the present occupant in the White House. What has toughened him is the fact that liberals from all over the country have made a concerted effort to unseat Walker and undo his reforms and he has found a way to beat them at every turn. It is no small accomplishment that Walker is the first governor in American history to survive a recall vote.
The reason liberals have failed to oust Walker from office is that liberals portray Walker as a monster, but Walker simply doesn’t come off that way to most people. If anything it is the liberals who have been far more monstrous in their behavior towards Walker and his family, effectively making him a more sympathetic figure. When the Boston band the Dropkick Murphys objected to Walker using their version of the Woody Guthrie penned song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” at the Iowa Freedom Summit, they tweeted, “we literally hate you.” This says a great deal more about the Dropkick Murphys than it does about Scott Walker. I suspect we will see a lot more of this and, to paraphrase Nietzsche, what does not kill Walker will make him stronger. If Walker can carry himself with more decency than his opponents, then he will go far.
I haven’t decided whether I’m supporting Walker, or anyone else, in the Republican primary. (One would think the number of GOP candidates will be culled somewhat by next April.) I think it’s unlikely Walker will become president. But that may be another underestimation.