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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
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Scott Walker

The Wisconsin governor is well-qualified and solidly conservative, but a bit on the dull side.

Scott Walker is a solid conservative

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has a reputation as a firebrand after passing aggressive anti-union legislation in his state and then surviving a union-backed recall effort. But Walker is, in many ways, less interesting than his reputation suggests. He's solidly conservative across a wide range of issues and not especially identified with any particular faction or eccentric stand. He rose to prominence leading a charge against his state's labor unions, but the policies he passed already existed in other states, and several other Midwestern governors have followed Walker's lead without attracting the same level of controversy. Walker is conservative, but he's not an ideological outlier in his party.

He's also the two-term governor of a midsize state, so his qualifications aren't in doubt, and he adds an electability element to the pitch by having won three statewide elections in a place that hasn't voted Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale in 1984.

Speaking of Reagan, Walker is a big fan of Reagan. A really, really big fan. Walker was married on Reagan's birthday, and he and his wife celebrate their anniversary with a Reagan-themed celebration featuring Reagan's favorite foods, including macaroni and cheese and a red, white, and blue blend of Jelly Belly–brand jellybeans.

Walker isn't known as a particularly dynamic campaigner: his set-piece speeches are often dull and uninspired, and when forced to ad lib answers to questions from the national press, he tends to stumble. Given the Midwest's longtime status as the swing region of American politics, Ideologically Generic Midwestern Governor very often seems like the natural direction for a party to go with its presidential nomination. But in practice, that hasn't happened since Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and hasn't produced a winner since William McKinley in 1896.

Walker has quickly emerged as a first-tier Republican candidate, routinely polling as the second or third choice behind Jeb Bush and, occasionally, Marco Rubio. He's also known to be a favorite of the Koch brothers, so fundraising shouldn't be much of an issue.

Scott Walker has been an anti-abortion activist since college

Scott Walker is against abortion and thinks it should be illegal without exception, including in cases of rape or incest. Walker has been a vocal opponent of legal abortion at least since his campaign for student government president at Marquette when he was a sophomore (other elements of the Walker agenda included "safer streets and bringing in cool bands like INXS and REM").

As governor, Walker signed legislation making it more expensive and difficult for a woman to get an abortion, has proposed a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and says he "was raised to believe in the sanctity of life and I will always fight to protect it."

Walker's pro-life stance is not unusual for a Republican, though his opposition to rape exceptions is moderately controversial within the party. What's more, the longstanding nature of his commitment to anti-abortion politics should be encouraging to pro-life groups to the extent that it marks him as more of a true believer than the average politician.

This connects back to Walker's core appeal to conservatives tired of being sold out by Republicans who run right in the primaries and then move toward the center when they win the presidency. Walker's long history on abortion makes clear that he has little interest in compromising on the issue.

Scott Walker is an aggressive supply-side tax cutter

After surviving a union-backed recall drive in 2012, Scott Walker reflected in an interview that he'd like his legacy to be "that we controlled the budget without tax increases, without cuts in things like Medicaid, and did so in a way that helped create more jobs in the private sector, which means more freedom and prosperity for all of our people."

He is, in short, an orthodox conservative who believes in lower taxes and less spending as the path to prosperity. And the economy has grown on his watch, as it has in all 50 states since he took office in 2011.

This is not necessarily Walker's fault, per se — in general, warmer states are all faster-growing than cold ones, and Wisconsin is pretty cold — but it's not a great look for his economic record.

Walker has not yet spoken in much detail about federal taxes, but his record in office in Wisconsin suggests that he would be an aggressive tax cutter, eager to push the limits of economic feasibility. As governor, Walker has enacted about $2 billion in tax cuts prompting a budget shortfall that forced the state to skip a $108 million scheduled debt payment. Walker has also made the state's tax code less progressive, focusing on the supply-side idea of increasing incentives to work and invest rather than on delivering money to those most in need. Thus, his main tax cuts have been a reduction in income and property taxes, which he's paired with higher taxes on some low-wage workers and low-income renters and homeowners.

Walker mused aloud about the idea of eliminating the state's income tax altogether and making up the gap with higher sales tax rates. This notion would, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project, have resulted in higher taxes for the bottom 80 percent of Wisconsin households.

He never pursued the idea seriously, but that didn't stop him from telling a New Hampshire audience that abolishing the federal income tax "sounds pretty tempting" as a policy idea.

Walker is a political ally of fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, whose most recent budget blueprint includes a tax-reform proposal that would result in lower tax rates financed in part by higher taxes on working- and middle-class families — a plan consistent with the general trajectory of Walker's policies as governor.

Scott Walker curbed union power in Wisconsin

Scott Walker is not a fan of labor unions. As governor of Wisconsin he signed two critical pieces of legislation greatly reducing their influence in the state, and he says he would support a national law that would significantly curb union fundraising and future organizing.

An oppositional stance to unions is hardly unusual for a Republican, though it's a bit unusually central to Walker's worldview. He's repeatedly referred to Ronald Reagan's 1981 firing of striking air traffic controllers as "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime," and he sees his standoff with Wisconsin unions as a key credential for the presidency — and an answer to those who wonder how he would fare against foreign adversaries like ISIS.

Walker's record on unions has two major elements — collective bargaining for public sector workers and a state right-to-work (RTW) law that he'd like to take national.

Public-sector collective bargaining

Walker came to national prominence through his promotion of Wisconsin Act 10, a "budget repair bill" that stripped state and local employees in Wisconsin of the right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer. The bill created an exception for police officers and firefighters' unions, two groups that backed Walker's election in 2010. The change was bitterly opposed by Wisconsin labor unions, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, and large crowds of protestors and became an ideological touchstone nationwide.

After the law passed, Wisconsin Democrats successfully forced Walker into a recall election, which he won.

The law has significantly impacted Wisconsin, producing a noticeable decline in union membership and structurally altering the state's politics.

Interestingly, however, the specific policy agenda Walker promoted was in many ways much less radical than the volume of the debate around it would indicate. As this 2011 map from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees shows, state-level curbs on public-sector collective bargaining were quite widespread before Walker ever became governor. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were governors of non-collective bargaining states before becoming president.

Collective bargaining in 2011 (AFSCME)

Collective bargaining in 2011. (AFSCME)

Indeed, even some heavily Democratic states such as Massachusetts limit public-sector collective bargaining in meaningful ways, though without going as far as Walker. Most federal employees can't bargain collectively, with the exceptions mostly in the US Postal Service.

What makes Walker notable in this regard is not so much the policy as his leadership in promoting it. That made him a huge labor target both during the recall and during his successful 2014 reelection campaign. The fact that he withstood the onslaught is one reason conservative activists like him so much: they believe they can trust Walker to fight for their principles even in the face of heavy opposition.

Right to work

In his second term, Walker signed legislation turning Wisconsin into a right-to-work (RTW) state. RTW laws, it is important to note, do not establish a legal right to work. What they actually do is ban a specific kind of provision from private-sector collective bargaining agreements.

When a labor union is successfully organized in a non-RTW state, it will typically seek a contractual provision saying that all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement need to either join the union or else pay a "representation fee" in lieu of union dues. An RTW law bans the creation of this kind of contract, which makes it more difficult for unions to collect funds and sustain membership.

RTW states in turquoise (Scott 5114)

RTW states in turquoise. (Scott 5114)

The country has long been split between RTW states (mostly in the South) and non-RTW ones, but in recent years several Midwestern states have gone RTW. Recently, Walker has said he would support national right-to-work legislation as president.

Scott Walker wants to reduce legal immigration

Scott Walker has distinguished himself from the Republican field by being the candidate who expresses skepticism not just of Obama's executive actions on immigration or some notion of "amnesty," but of legal immigration.

He says revisions to the current legal immigration regime need to be made "based, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages." He went on to praise Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who is known as Congress's biggest skeptic of legal immigration, and has pushed back against criticism from the Wall Street Journal of his legal immigration skepticism.

Walker has not released a specific plan to alter legal immigration, but running on a platform of curbing it is essentially uncharted waters for a Republican nominee. For at least the past 20 years, the immigration debate has mostly been about what to do with the large number of people living and working in the United States illegally. Bob Dole and Mitt Romney both promised a punitive approach to unauthorized migrants, while George W. Bush and John McCain, like today's Democrats, offered legal status and a path to citizenship.

Polling shows that decreasing the level of immigration to the United States is a plurality view, more popular than either the status quo or an increase in immigration but falling well short of majority support. Walker's comments generated a lot of backlash from liberals as well as conservatives, but the New York Times's Ross Douthat, noting the polling, argued that Walker would do his party "a real service if he ... made this a real primary-season debate."


Of course, a decrease in the level of immigration could be achieved by reducing either legal or unauthorized border crossings. But as net unauthorized migration appears to have fallen to zero or a lower level — in other words, fewer people are coming illegally than are leaving or being deported — in practice, changing the legal rules might be the only way to reduce immigration at this point.

Scott Walker is working hard to get up to speed on national security

Like many governors with presidential aspirations, Scott Walker lacks obvious foreign policy credentials. And in early statements, Walker often appeared amateurish.

He said, "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same around the world," seeming to imply that a domestic political conflict with labor unions is the same as a military battle against ISIS. Separately, he repeatedly cited Ronald Reagan's conflict with the air traffic controllers union as the most significant foreign policy development of his lifetime. And appearing on Fox News, he referred to Ukraine as "the Ukraine" — an outdated formulation that Ukrainians associate with efforts to delegitimize their country as a geographical region rather than a sovereign state.

Walker is working to address these vulnerabilities, meeting with a range of GOP figures including George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, John Lehman, Michael Hayden, Jim Mattis, Jack Keane, Brian Hook, and Eric Edelman. He hired a staffer from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to work on his 527 group, and former Missouri Senator Jim Talent is working to put together an advisory board for him.

In an email to Politico's James Hohmann, neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol wrote, "In spring training — especially when a player is learning a new position — you want to see basic talent, hard work and real improvement. In Scott Walker's case, so far we've seen all three."

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