Four years ago, the 42 year-old Milwaukee County executive who was running for Governor was a stranger to most Wisconsinites. Then he was elected to the Governor’s Mansion with a solid GOP state legislature by his side, and began to carry out an agenda that would send more than 100,000 people out to the streets to protest.
Thousands of protests and a historic recall election later, that same Governor is now fighting for his political life. The risks of a loss in his ultra-close reelection battle are huge for Scott Walker – instant political oblivion as he loses his viability nationally. But the reward would be even bigger. For a national Republican Party that’s desperate for a White House win, Scott Walker would be the conservative who faced the full fury of the Democratic machine not once but three times in a blue-leaning state, and survived to govern four more years.
It’s certainly the narrative that Walker himself already is pushing. In his 2013 book Unintimidated, Walker presents himself as a gladiator for fiscal responsibility who took on the entrenched interests time and again. By passing his infamous Act 10 legislation that crippled unions by severely limiting their collective bargaining rights, Walker claims he was doing nothing more than pursuing a reform-minded strategy of balancing the state’s budget.
“What they could not live with,” Walker wrote of the labor unions his new law gutted, “is if we broke up the system of cronyism and corruption that allowed them to preserve their power and perpetuate their prerogatives.”
Preservation of power – that’s an interesting bone to pick for a governor whose own ideas of reform always seem to coincidentally undermine his political opponents. Act 10 is the most famous example – with the stroke of a pen Walker vastly reduced the benefits that unions had to offer their members, causing membership – and power of the traditionally Democratic-aligned groups – to plummet as much as 60 percent in the next few years.
Thanks to Act 10, Walker and other Republicans facing the voters can now breathe a little easier in their reelection battles, assured that there will now be fewer union boots on the ground to oppose them.
But in recent weeks, Scott Walker’s odious voter ID law has gotten some attention as well. The fight over Act 10 is replayed over the course of entire chapters in Walker’s book, but the governor didn’t even devote an whole sentence to describing his voting reforms, only mentioning in passing that he and the legislature had passed a bill to require ID from voters in order to fight voter fraud.
What fraud is Walker talking about?
A 2014 study published by The Washington Post found 31 cases of in-person voter fraud (the only kind of fraud voter ID laws could theoretically counter) since the year 2000. That’s 31 cases – out of more than a billion votes cast in general and primary elections in that time period. Other studies have found the problem to be similarly nonexistent, confirming the general sense that the number of people who would be willing to risk hefty fines and years of imprisonment in order to cast a fraudulent vote that won’t change the outcome of an election is actually,well, unsurprisingly small.
But Walker wasn’t about to let that fact deter him in his quest to force some 300,000 Wisconsinites who lacked the required forms of ID to find one fast, or be disenfranchised.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s one, 100, or 1,000” Walker said of the number of fraudulent votes that would be needed to make his voter ID law worthwhile. “Amongst us who would be that one person who would like to have our vote canceled out by a vote that was cast illegally?”
So the laws are justified if they prevent even one hypothetical tragedy, according to Walker. But in a country that sees 31 cases of in-person voter fraud a decade but 30,000 gun-related deaths a year, Walker doesn’t apply this rationale to justify gun control in even the most modest form.
Amongst Wisconsinites, who would be that one person who would like to have his or her life canceled out by a gun that was owned legally? Apparently, Walker hasn’t given it much thought – but you’d better believe he’s zeroed in on the single-digit number of people who have engaged in voter fraud in his state – even if the only known case of fraud in Wisconsin came from a Walker supporter who voted frequently for Walker in the 2012 recall.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court blocked the ID law from going into effect in October. It’s a decision that saved more than 300,000 voters the trouble of securing another form of ID, or become one of the thousands nationwide who are successfully deterred from voting thanks to the new restrictions coming out of Republican-dominated legislatures.
But despite the setback, Walker is still in the running – and could very well be ahead – in the 2014 battle for Wisconsin’s future. He faces a well-funded and energetic challenger in Burke, who has private sector experience in a campaign that’s shaping up to be mostly about jobs. She’s also well-positioned to take Walker to task for his broken promise to bring 250,000 new jobs to Wisconsin by the end of his first term. His unfulfilled boast is featured in her ads, and last month a chastened Walker said that it just goes to show that his administration is on the right track… but needs more time.
It’s a deflection that was rightly ridiculed by none other than the President of the United States, who was frequently criticized by Walker on jobs leading up to the 2012 election. The irony: Wisconsin’s job growth under Walker has lagged America’s job growth under Obama over the last four years.
Republicans may be patriots, the President said, but they have some bad ideas they just keep clinging to. And with no amount of economic evidence ever seeming to change their minds, the only way to turn the state around is to boot them out.
He didn’t mention Walker by name. He didn’t have to.
This is all very poignant because Walker has acknowledged owing his career to a Wisconsin phenomenon: Obama/Walker voters. These voters supported Obama in 2012 while voting for Walker in the recall that same year. Making up six percent of the electorate, they delivered both politicians their winning margins.
These voters were candid with pollsters about why they voted for Walker in the recall: while they weren’t enamored of him, they thought recall was a bridge too far for a governor guilty of no official misconduct.
But Walker has his own unique explanation for the tens of thousands of Obama voters who saved him. “President Obama and I could not be philosophically farther apart,” he writes in “Unintimidated.” “But in some other respects, President Obama and I ran similar campaigns. My fundamental message in the recall was: We want to keep moving Wisconsin forward, not backward. We just need more time to finish the job. President Obama made essentially the same argument for his reelection.”
Both he and the President were successful with these voters, Walker theorizes, because they both stayed true to their principles rather than kowtow to the center for political expediency. “Change the polls, not your principles,” Walker asserts in a final chapter. “The way to win the center is to lead.”
It’s true that while Walker may have been called almost everything under the sun at this point, no one has ever said he isn’t bold. In fact, Walker recounts a scene in the early days of his administration where he laid his plans to go after the unions to a room that was gripped with stunned silence. His original plan obliterated rather than cramped the unions’ collective bargaining rights, and also included the ultimately exempt police and firefighter unions.
His aides and advisers ultimately convinced him to go with a “Nuclear-Lite” option, which in itself ignited the enormous protests and recall that was to come.
But Walker didn’t go “Nuclear-Lite” on any other item on his agenda. From tort reform to the slashing of business regulations to restrictive voter ID laws, Walker has efficiently and systematically pursued every item on the Tea Party wish list for state governments. He’s signed legislation forcing women seeking abortions to first obtain ultrasounds, and placed further restrictions on abortion providers. Regardless of what he says in misleading ads, he’s still the same Walker who confirmed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2010 that he opposed abortion in all cases, including rape and incest.
This undercover extremism is one reason why, if Walker manages to win on Tuesday as the latest Milwaukee Journal Sentinel poll suggests he will, he’ll be in a truly commanding position. Already a cause celebre with conservatives nationwide after what he’s done to Wisconsin’s unions, and with an unusually elevated profile for a governor following the recall, a victory in these midterms will be final confirmation to Republican bigwigs and kingmakers searching for a champion in 2016: Walker is the real deal.
And it’s a certainty that Walker has one eye gazing across Wisconsin’s border even as he fights for his political survival at home. His campaign book leaves little doubt about his ambitions: he holds up Wisconsin as a model for what the right leadership can accomplish in Washington. He’s not just ready and willing to accept the torch on his way to bigger and better things. He is needed.
Politically gifted and with an ability to unite the social conservatives, foreign policy hawks and business groups that make up the three legs of the GOP coalition, Walker might be the most formidable candidate the GOP has to offer for 2016. That might not say a lot, and he still looks like an underdog against Hillary Clinton in what polls are available.
But two years are a lifetime in politics, and you never say never. Only two things about Walker’s rise seem certain. The best time for Democrats to stop him was during the 2012 recall, when the whole world was watching. And the second best time is now.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.