As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) moves toward a presidential bid, he’s hoping that a series of in-state accomplishments can help him vault ahead of more outsized personalities.
Fresh off a solid reelection win in Democratic-leaning Wisconsin, Walker has brought in top GOP strategist Rick Wiley to prepare for a White House campaign.
The mild-mannered governor’s aides say the beginning of his second term will focus on conservative priorities like tax and education reform, and shrinking government.
At the top of that list are elimination of some state agencies and a repeal of Common Core education standards — policies that could play well with the conservative base, as Walker looks to find room in what’s likely to be a crowded Republican presidential field.
“As Governor Walker heads into his second term, he will continue focusing on his top priorities: growing the economy, developing the workforce, transforming education, reforming government, and investing in infrastructure,” his spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said. “Governor Walker is committed to reforming state government to make it work better for taxpayers, eliminating waste and streamlining repetitive bureaucracy.”
Those close to Walker say he’ll use his Tuesday speech to highlight a major theme of a future campaign: his long list of reforms in the state in contrast to the paralysis of the federal government.
“He’ll hit heavy on the comparison between Wisconsin and Washington,” said one Wisconsin Republican familiar with Walker’s plans.
Aided by a GOP legislature, Walker has continued to pile up a series of conservative-friendly successes following his high-profile war against public-sector unions and subsequent recall victory.
Among those are new property tax cuts, with more planned in the coming months, and new laws relaxing gun controls and tightening abortion restrictions.
Admirers of the governor say that record sets him apart from a number of his potential opponents — and could help vault him into the first tier in what’s likely to be a crowded primary field.
“What Walker has is four years now and two more before the election where he has done amazing things,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist told The Hill. “Take any part of the modern center-right coalition. He’s done taxes, concealed carry [gun permits], school choice and significant changes on the public-sector labor unions, and he won a series of elections. He can say he more dramatically improved his state faster than anyone.”
His strong opposition to Common Core also contrasts with both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a strong proponent of the standards, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who once backed them before reversing his position.
Walker would be competing with both Huckabee and Bush for their bases of support — looking to earn support both from fellow Evangelical Christians and from more centrist, business-minded Republicans. Still, some strategists believe he might be able to win over voters from all parts of the GOP, as other candidates double down to lock in either centrists or hard-liners.
He’ll be test-driving his message this month beyond the Badger State. Walker heads to Iowa Jan. 24 for the year’s first major gathering of likely president candidates, a daylong cattle call organized by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and the conservative group Citizens United.
“His Midwest roots combined with his willingness to combat the unions have turned a lot of heads,” said Iowa-based GOP strategist Tim Albrecht.
However, critics say Walker’s laid-back style could make it harder to gain attention in a field of big personalities — more than one compared him to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), another soft-spoken Midwesterner whose campaign flamed out badly in 2012.
Detractors also argue the focus on his day job isn’t completely helpful for his campaign hopes. The governor hasn’t spent nearly as much time next door in Iowa and the other early voting states as some of his likely rivals, partly because of his own competitive 2016 reelection race.
Wisconsin’s spring legislative session means he might be tied up in the state until June or July, hampering his ability to campaign. And a number of top Iowa Republicans, including some who claim they’re fans of the governor and might be open to working for him, say they haven’t heard from his staff for months, a sign the best campaign operatives are getting snapped up.
But Walker allies say hiring Wiley alleviates some of that pressure. A former Republican National Committee executive director, Wiley has deep ties in many early voting states and worked in both Iowa and New Hampshire in the 2014 cycle.
They also say Walker and his allies have been keeping a close eye on the clock, and while they admit Bush’s aggressive early moves sped up the timetable, they say the governor is ready to move forward with a campaign that balances time in Wisconsin with a heavy campaign schedule in nearby Iowa.
“Rick coming on board was an acceleration,” said one Walker ally. “He’s more than ready; he’s certainly comfortable, and he’s more comfortable doing this than some people would be. He’s reached that point in his mind that this is something he and [his wife] Tonette want to do. The assessment is whether they can raise the money and put together the organization. But he wants to do this and he’s ready.”