clock menu more-arrow no yes

Scott Walker is the perfect Republican

Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

For better and worse, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker launched his presidential campaign Monday as a nearly perfect embodiment of the modern Republican electorate.

Begin with the demographics. Walker is well-positioned to appeal to the average Republican voter because he is the average Republican voter.

In 2012, 87 percent of Republicans were white, the average Republican voter was 49.7 years old, and 52 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters were men, according to Pew. The most loyal GOP voting group, outside of the smaller set of Mormons, is non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants. Using slightly older data, half of Republicans live in suburbs or small towns, compared with 27.74 percent in cities and 21.19 percent in rural areas.

And while Democrats hold a 47 percent to 37 percent lead over Republicans with voters whose highest level of educational attainment is a high school degree and a 52 percent to 40 percent edge among those with at least one college degree, the Democratic advantage is narrowest (47 percent to 42 percent) among voters who attended college but did not earn a degree.

Walker, who is white and male, will be 49 on Election Day in 2016. He is the son of a Baptist preacher who points to God's will as the force behind his political career. He lives in Wauwatosa, a city in the suburbs west of Milwaukee that has a small-town feel, and he attended Marquette University but did not graduate.

One Republican to unite them all

But Walker's everyman Republicanism doesn't end at his census form. It's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Walker has so far of finding spots on the Republican political spectrum that appeal to grassroots conservatives without alienating the establishment wing of the GOP. And he's done it while winning three times in a politically competitive state — a fact his allies cite in making the case that he would be well-positioned to win back the White House for the GOP.

"He blends both sides of the party," said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who hasn't yet made an endorsement.

Walker burst onto the national political scene by aggressively busting unions in a blue state on the edge of the Rust Belt. After he cracked down on state employees' collective bargaining rights, Democratic activists collected enough signatures to force Walker into a recall election in 2012. He won with 53 percent of the vote, garnering a national list of donors and supporters in the process.

Voters reelected him in 2014, reinvigorating his crusade to make it harder for Wisconsin workers to organize. Earlier this year, Walker signed legislation making Wisconsin a "right to work" state. That's been a boon for him with corporate leaders, most notably the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, who have pledged to spend nearly $1 billion on the 2016 election and who have signaled he's likely their guy.

As he did with the Koch brothers, Walker's proved himself to be savvy at the art of appealing to other major forces in the Republican policy world. He is expected to announce Monday that his campaign chairman will be Michael Grebe, the president of the Bradley Foundation, which has long underwritten efforts to promote private school vouchers, welfare reform and a variety of faith-based policy initiatives.

Walker's institutional support speaks to an agenda that reflects the interests of both business and religious conservatives — key pillars of the Republican Party that are not always on the same page. Walker's been as reliable an ally to social conservatives as he has to business interests.

At Walker's request, the Wisconsin legislature last week sent him a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy without standard exemptions for victims of rape and incest. He wrote a letter to Wisconsin Family Action during his 2014 campaign touting his opposition to abortion and his defense, as governor, of the state's constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage. He also signed a prenatal ultrasound law in 2013, and his budget this year redirects funds that would have gone to Planned Parenthood — which he proudly cites as a "defunding" of the women's reproductive health group.

It's tough to find a policy on which Walker doesn't line up with conservatives: He rejected Medicaid money from the Affordable Care Act, has been a consistent supporter of gun owners since withdrawing his co-sponsorship of a gun control bill early in his career as a state legislator, and he's signed on to Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge — a promise not to raise new taxes.

Though his sons disagree with him and his wife, Tonette, says she's "torn" on the issue, Walker slammed the Supreme Court's recent ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry. In the wake of that decision, he called for a constitutional amendment allowing states to ban same-sex marriage. Indeed, as his presidential ambitions have grown, Walker's become a more vocal foe of same-sex marriage.

His social conservatism has been particularly helpful in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, where he has consistently led by a healthy margin. Recent polling shows that he's managed to walk a fine line in appealing to Iowa Republicans without disqualifying himself to GOP voters in other states.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released last month revealed that only 19 percent of Republicans say they wouldn't consider voting for Walker. The only candidate with a better percentage was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 15 percent. That means that even as Walker trails frontrunner Jeb Bush in national polls, most Republicans are still open to hearing his case.

"Walker is definitely trying to offer something to all major factions of the Republican Party," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in the Los Angeles area. "To traditional Republicans, he offers his record as governor of a purple state, which shows that he knows how to handle the practical problems of governing. To economic conservatives, he offers a strong conservative stance on fiscal issues and his epic battle against public sector unions. To religious conservatives, he offers his life story as a pastor's son and his (newly) tough position on same-sex marriage."

Walker's biggest problem: immigration

The issue Walker has struggled with most is, unsurprisingly, the issue that most sharply splits the GOP's corporate establishment from white working-class voters who form the heart of the Tea Party and have been attracted of late to Donald Trump's message: immigration.

Wall Street and major corporations — including the Koch empire — like the influx of cheap labor and of highly skilled workers. And party elders worry that the GOP may wither if it can't find a way to appeal to Hispanic voters. But many GOP activists are motivated by their opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, which they call "amnesty."

Walker has found himself caught in the middle, clumsily signaling at different times that he is sympathetic to both sides.

In March, Walker announced on Fox News Sunday that he no longer supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. "I don't believe in amnesty," he said. "We need to secure the border. We ultimately need to put in place a system that works — a legal immigration that works." By April, he had convinced the Senate's top hard-liner on immigration, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, that he wouldn't go soft.

But earlier this month, Stephen Moore, the chief economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the New York Times that Walker had said in a phone call that he was "not going nativist" and is "pro-immigration." When Walker's campaign objected, Moore recanted — not just walking back the specifics of what Walker said but denying there had ever been a phone call.

The positions aren't necessarily irreconcilable. If a Republican president signs an immigration law with a path to citizenship, you can be sure he won't call it "amnesty." Moreover, Walker's change of heart on immigration puts him in good company among Republican primary contenders.

Rubio helped write the so-called Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill that the Senate passed in the last Congress, then backed away from the bill. He says he's never abandoned his support for a path to citizenship, but says that should only happen in a sequence in which the US border with Mexico is made more secure first.

Jeb Bush has navigated a tortuous path on immigration. He was once open to a means for undocumented immigrants to attain citizenship — like the one George W. Bush proposed when he was president — but now says those in the US should be allowed to earn legal status, not citizenship.

Immigration has confounded Walker because there's no clear answer that satisfies both the corporate wing of the GOP and the activist base. On most matters, he's been able to find safe ground that pleases various Republican constituencies, showing an affinity for finesse that is a hallmark of top-flight politicians. On immigration, it's not clear that that safe ground exists.

The three open questions about Scott Walker

So, Walker checks a lot of boxes in the GOP primary: Republican voters can identify with him, he's got significant institutional support, and his positions match up well with those of the Republican primary electorate. But there are still three big questions looming over his campaign.

  1. Does he have the charisma to inspire voters?
  2. Would he lose the general election by winning the primary?
  3. Can he pass the commander-in-chief test?

Since he's from Wisconsin, perhaps a cheese simile is a fitting way to explain his persona. Walker's like the Kraft American single of the Republican primary field: solid, but so processed for mass consumption as to lack real flavor. Like that staple of the standard American family's refrigerator, Walker lacks the pizzazz of pepper jack or the refinement of Roquefort. He has the natural charisma of the workaday sandwich, and it will be interesting to see whether that will be a hindrance, as some Beltway insiders think, or perhaps even helpful.

A more existential question for Republican voters is whether they actually want to put forward a candidate who represents the current party so well. Republicans lost the last two presidential campaigns. While Walker's three victories in Wisconsin show he's capable of winning in one swing state, he was never on the ballot at the same time as a high-turnout presidential election. It's not yet clear how Walker would expand the party's reach to independents or Democrats.

The third major question facing Walker is one that matters for both the primary, and, if he can win that, the general election: Can he run the country?

Walker's spent his career at the state and local level, as a legislator, county executive, and governor. He doesn't have the kind of foreign policy experience that some of his Republican rivals have gained as members of the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence Committees, or even the international business acumen of Bush or Trump. Like Obama, he'd have to rely almost entirely on selling his worldview, rather than his foreign policy bona fides, in a campaign against Clinton.

"Most Republicans will see him as acceptable on the issues, but will they see him as presidential?" Pitney said. "That will depend on his performance in the debates. If he stumbles on foreign policy issues, he will start losing support. Voters actually know little about foreign policy themselves, but they expect their president to understand it."

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.