Walker is easily the most conservative of those three. The Wisconsin governor gained nationwide fame for his aggressive moves to roll back the power of his state's public sector unions. He's now proposing to battle unions at the federal level, too. And his broader economic agenda has also been tailored to win the hearts of conservatives who want to cut taxes and slash spending.
Meanwhile, on social and cultural issues like abortion, guns, and same-sex marriage, Walker's been a staunch ally of the right. And on immigration — an issue where rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are somewhat moderate — Walker has publicly taken a hard line. (Though there have been some reports that in private, his tone is quite different.) Walker has been less comfortable discussing foreign affairs, but indications so far are that he'll push hawkish policies similar to most others in the GOP field.
Overall, conservatives would probably be thrilled with a President Walker. He doesn't just talk the talk — he has a record of policy accomplishments showing he means what he says.
Rolled back the power of public sector unions in Wisconsin
When Walker campaigned for governor in 2010, it was clear that if elected, he'd be tough on public sector unions. But the plan he announced shortly after taking office — which essentially stripped those unions of their collective bargaining rights — went much further than most expected. And Walker didn't only win passage of it and sign it into law — he successfully fended off years of resistance to it from Democrats and unions.
Amid escalating protests, Democratic state senators fled the state to try to block the law from passing in the first place, but Republican legislators got it through anyway. Liberals challenged the law in court, and tried to elect their favored candidate to a key Wisconsin Supreme Court seat — but they failed in both endeavors. They even triggered a recall election against Walker, but he won it comfortably.
And four years later, it's clear that Walker's law has dramatically changed the state — membership in key public unions has plummeted. After another comfortable reelection, Republican power in Wisconsin was strong enough that Walker could sign a bill making the state right-to-work — therefore preventing unions from requiring fees or dues from their workers. This year, he said that he'd support pursuing a national right-to-work law too.
Wants to ban same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment — and some GOP donors aren't happy about it
When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last month, some GOP presidential contenders responded with measured tones. Not Walker, who released an outraged statement calling the decision "a grave mistake" by "unelected judges" trying to "redefine the institution of marriage." And Walker proposed doing something about it, saying that the ruling should be reversed by "an amendment to the US Constitution" — a position his rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio notably failed to take.
Opposition to same-sex marriage is the standard position for Republican politicians (and was, until recently, for Democrats). But according to reporting by the Washington Post's Jenna Johnson, Matea Gold, and Philip Rucker, Republican elites have gotten the sense that Walker's opposition to marriage equality goes beyond that of other candidates — and he's having trouble raising money among Wall Street elites because of it. "One billionaire hedge fund manager got into a long argument with Walker over same-sex marriage and then pulled his support because of it," the Post reporters write.
The toughest on immigration of the top GOP contenders — publicly, at least
This year, Walker has stressed his opposition to what he calls "amnesty" for unauthorized immigrants, in an apparent attempt to outflank rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. This is a shift from statements he's made in the past — though Walker's never been particularly involved in the immigration issue, he did previously back or praise various proposals to legalize the status of unauthorized immigrants. "My view has changed, I’m flat-out saying it," Walker said this year. "I don't believe in amnesty."
But Walker has also distinguished himself from the GOP field by challenging legal immigration. A few months back, he said that legal immigration policy should be "based, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages." This goes much further than most Republicans, who tend to contrast their condemnation of unauthorized immigration with their praise of legal immigration.
However, there have been some accounts of Walker saying rather different things on immigration in private. First, the Wall Street Journal's Reid Epstein reported that at a private dinner in New Hampshire, Walker said that unauthorized immigrants should be eligible for citizenship eventually. (A campaign spokeswoman released a statement disputing the account and saying Walker "does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants." More recently, conservative economist Steve Moore told the New York Times' Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin that Walker assured him he wasn't "going nativist" and was "pro-immigration." Days later, Moore retracted his story and said the conversation never took place.
What's going on? The GOP's elites and its base are split on immigration, and Walker has been "unusually bad at finessing" that divide, argues Dara Lind.
A tough-on-crime record, and no signs of being a criminal justice reformer
Recently, more and more Republicans — from Rick Perry to Rand Paul and the Koch brothers — have begun to advocate for reform of the criminal justice system that would ease sentencing laws and policies. Not Scott Walker. He has a long record, going back to his days in the state legislature, of supporting very tough sentencing laws, and there's no sign he's changed his views since.
"Between 1997 and 1998, Walker wrote or co-sponsored more than two dozen bills limiting parole, increasing prison time for a variety of offenses, expanding the definition of crimes, and other criminal justice changes," Liz Goodwin wrote at Yahoo Politics. "His crowning achievement was the Truth in Sentencing Act, a bill that effectively ended the parole system in the state of Wisconsin." Now, as governor, he's shown little interest in criminal justice reform, and has instead distinguished himself by refusing to pardon even a single person.
Seems to be a foreign policy hawk, but is inexperienced on the topic
Walker has accumulated little foreign policy experience in his two decades in state politics. But his statements this year make clear that he'd run as a tough-talking hawk. He's challenged Obama for being too soft on ISIS and Putin, said any nuclear deal with Iran would lead to an arms race in the Middle East, and promised to call out "radical Islamic terrorism for what it is," and "do whatever it takes to take the fight to them before they bring the fight to us."
"When you have, not only with ISIS and al Qaeda, but you have an Iran, you have other places around the world groups that that want to not only annihilate Israel, but annihilate us in America, it’s like a virus," Walker told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt. "You’ve got to eradicate it. You can’t take out part of it, or it will come back." Unlike the Soviet Union, Walker continued, "radical Islamic terrorism" can't be contained.
Walker also argues that US politicians can prove their foreign policy strength by combating unions at home. He's repeatedly claimed that President Reagan's 1981 firing of striking air traffic controllers showed the Soviets he meant business, and once called the firings "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime." Walker also brought up his own battles with unions in a foreign policy context during a February speech, saying, "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world." He later elaborated, "It's about leadership. The closest thing that I can compare to the type of pressure the next president’s going to be under is what I went through four years ago."
On abortion, he's strongly pro-life
"I was raised to believe in the sanctity of life and I will always fight to protect it," Walker wrote this year. And his record on abortion-related issues shows that he's a staunch ally of the pro-life movement. In July 2013, he signed a bill into law that mandated ultrasounds for women seeking abortions in Wisconsin. And just this month, he's preparing to sign a bill passed by the Wisconsin legislature that bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, without any exceptions for cases involving rape or incest. He supports similar legislation on the federal level, too.
He's very, very pro-gun
Scott Walker's governorship has been fantastic for gun rights supporters. Previously, Wisconsin had been one of only two states without a concealed carry law — but in 2011, Walker signed "one of the more permissive bills in the country," wrote the Journal-Sentinel's Jason Stein. He also signed a "castle doctine" bill giving protections for people who shoot intruders in their home. And just a week after the shootings in Charleston, Scott Walker signed two new pro-gun bills into law. One bill ended Wisconsin's 48-hour waiting period for purchasing a handgun, and the other let retired and off-duty cops carry guns in public schools, and the Marshall Project's Eli Hager wrote.
Cut taxes, slash spending
Walker has been an enthusiastic tax-cutter as governor — he's slashed them by nearly $2 billion since taking office, including reductions in income tax rates, property taxes, and various tax cuts for businesses. When Wisconsin had a surplus in 2013, he jumped at the chance to enact a new round of tax cuts — but when less revenue came in than expected, his administration decided to skip a debt payment, incurring long-term costs to avoid a messy budget repair fight. Nationally, Walker has said that abolishing the federal income tax entirely "sounds pretty tempting," but has preferred to discuss cutting rates.
To fund these tax cuts, Walker argues for cutting spending. His controversial labor law cut hundreds of millions that would have been spent on pensions and health insurance for public sector employees. Walker has also rejected Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, even though the state's budget office estimated the proposal would save $400 million over two years. And his budget this year cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system, while freezing tuition. Walker used his line-item veto powers on teh budget to broaden his authority to drug test food stamp recipients and to strike out planned grants to environmental groups, Mary Spicuzza and Patrick Marley of the Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel write.
Reform public schools with choice, merit pay for teachers
Walker is a strong supporter of school choice, and has expanded school choice and vouchers programs while governor. "Our goal should be to provide as many quality educational choices for parents as possible, because I trust parents, and I know in the end that if you give them the best choices possible, they’re going to make the choice that is best for their son or daughter," Walker said in a speech this year.
The 2011 "budget repair" bill that included Walker's restrictions of collective bargaining also made major reforms to the public school system. It ended teacher tenure, allowing schools to hire and fire based on merit, and pay based on performance. "That means we can put the best and the brightest in our classroom and we can keep them here," Walker later said. Recently, he's become a critic of the Common Core standards —after being vague on it before — and has called on state legislators to repeal it.