A Scott Walker presidential campaign may end up being one of the easier things Tonette Walker has had to endure.
The Wisconsin first lady has experienced poverty, becoming a young widow and losing other close family members, the lonely period of cynicism and despair that followed, a whirlwind romance to the much younger future governor, and death threats from a nasty labor fight.
Those that know the Walker family describe Tonette as “tournament-tested” and “unflappable,” and say the political and personal travails she has faced will leave her well-equipped to deal with the rigors of national campaign and the next-level close-up she’ll get.
“She’s been through a lot,” said Wisconsin GOP lobbyist Brandon Scholz. “His campaigns have never been easy, and they’ve been through campaign after campaign after campaign. She’s ready.”
Walker allies say Tonette is more than just a figurehead — she’s a member of her husband’s inner political circle and will likely play a prominent role in a Walker presidential campaign.
Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, notes that Walker has already begun “weaving her into his biography on the campaign trail.”
At the Iowa Faith and Freedom Summit speech that catapulted Walker into the upper echelons of the GOP presidential race in January, he recounted personal threats his family endured after protests erupted over his move to strip public-sector unions of their bargaining rights in 2011.
“Most of those death threats were directed at me, but some of the worst were directed at my family,” Walker said. “I remember one of the ones that bothered me the most was someone literally sent me a threat that said they were going to gut my wife like a deer.”
The crowd sat aghast in horrified silence.
The 2012 recall election attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters and national media attention — and left Scott and Tonette fearing for the safety of their family.
Their two college-aged sons were harassed in public and online. Protesters staked out the family’s home, where Scott’s parents also live, forcing Tonette and her sons to at one point take overnight refuge in a local mall.
“I suspect first families across the country get their share of hate mail and threats, but not many have seen it with the intensity that Tonette has,” said Jim Villa, Walker’s chief of staff from when he was Milwaukee county executive in the early 1990s.
“It’s prepared her for the onslaught of negative personal attacks and political threats that come with the tension of a national campaign.”
But Tonette has her own potent, emotional story that adds a personal dimension to her husband, a would-be-president.
The couple’s first chapter began with a meet-cute on karaoke night at a barbecue joint in Wauwatosa. They frequently recount how Scott passed Tonette a napkin with a handwritten note and his phone number on it, and the persistence he displayed in courting her through a whirlwind romance that led to their marriage in 1993. Two sons followed shortly after.
For Tonette, the events were more than just a chance romantic encounter — she credits Scott with pulling her out of the existential hole she’d fallen into after the death of her first husband.
Tonette is 11 years older than Scott — about the same age difference that separates his grandparents. They married when he was 26 and she was 37.
She had been married before, at the age of 23, but lost her husband of seven years to kidney disease.
“As I got along the next few years, I dismissed the thought of getting married again,” Tonette recalled during a September 2014 speech in Madison, where she was accepting an award from a women’s organization. “I wanted children, but my cynicism left me questioning whether or not any good guys were left. Had I already had my chance? I had to wonder if I’d be alone for the rest of my life, but God had a plan for me.”
Tonette says she grew up poor; her mother was married at 16 and had two children by the time she was 19. The same year Tonette lost her husband, she also lost her grandmother, who she says helped raise her, and her only sibling, brother Nick Tarantino.
“These experiences were heartbreaking and exhausting and the repeated fractures in my world made me very cynical,” Tonette said in November speech. “But in a way, losing my brother and my husband prepared me for political life.”
Those who know the couple say Tonette could be gearing up to play two critical roles in Walker’s campaign: both as a supportive wife who could soften his image in what will be a grueling primary battle and as an independent surrogate invested and well-versed in Scott’s policy positions that could help him cement his image as a conservative reformer.
Tonette has played increasingly visible roles in Scott’s three successful gubernatorial elections in four years.
She frequently introduces her husband at campaign rallies ahead of major announcements, many times flanked by her sons, who plan to temporarily leave school to support their father’s potential presidential campaign.
Tonette has also traveled the state with women’s groups to support her husband’s races. She’s already dabbled in presidential politics, introducing Ann Romney at events in Wisconsin when 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney briefly flirted with playing in the state.
But Tonette has also proven she can be more than just a warm-up act.
“She was a prominent part of the recall election and all the elections, even giving speeches on her own, and being very vocal for her husband, particularly at a time when it would have been easier for her to be a shrinking violet,” one close adviser said.
The effort to recall Walker began in late 2011. In January 2012, amid protests and a national media frenzy, Tonette gave a full-throated campaign-style speech to a group of supporters on a frozen day in Wauwatosa while Scott was elsewhere.
“The reforms are working,” Tonette declared, provoking chants of ‘yes they are!’ from the crowd.
“We need you to be our choir,” she continued. “We need you to go out into the community and we need you to sing. We need you to talk to people, to your neighbors, the people in your community, the people at your jobs, and we need you to tell them that it’s working ... it’s now time for us to speak up, it’s now time to move Wisconsin forward.”
It was evidence that Scott trusts her as an independent surrogate on the stump, a role she could potentially fill in a presidential campaign.
“You’re going to hear the exact same thing coming from both of them,” said one former campaign aide.
Those that know the couple say Tonette is briefed on Scott’s political plans, knowledgeable on the issues, committed to his vision and is quickly coming into her own as a public figure.
“They view themselves as a team,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.). “She's one of two on the team.”