Will Romney Embrace Wisconsin’s Bold GOP Ideas?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 5 2012 11:02 PM

The GOP’s Land of Big Ideas

Wisconsin is the home of bold GOP thinking and Republican superstars. Will Romney ever call it home?

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Mitt Romney with Wisc. Rep. Paul Ryan in Milwaukee. Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker, who just survived a recall attempt, are among the GOP's young stars.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist sees a Wisconsin business opportunity for Mitt Romney now that Governor Scott Walker has survived. Walker built a network of campaign offices across the state. Romney should mount a friendly takeover. "The smart move for the Romney campaign would be to take over those same staff and don't let them shut down," says Norquist. "In Wisconsin they have the best turnout operation in history. They've been exercising all year. They're excited and they're cheerful."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Can Mitt Romney compete in the battleground state of Wisconsin? The political calculus is complicated. Republicans may have built a state-of-the-art machine for identifying and persuading voters, and they’ve had chances to repeatedly test it, but no Republican presidential candidate has won in Wisconsin since 1984. Walker’s campaign offices might work for Romney, but his voters won’t necessarily transfer in the general election. Exit polls on Tuesday showed Obama beating Romney by 11 points (though the margin may be as much as half as big once absentee ballots are factored in).

From an ideological perspective, though, Romney should rush to Wisconsin and plant the flag. It is the home of two GOP superstars—Scott Walker and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan—known for their boldness and perseverance. Romney says that he will be just as bold. If he ran loud and proud in Wisconsin it would send a message that he’s going to govern in the same audaciously conservative mold as the state’s favorite young guns. It would also be totally out of character for a candidate as risk-averse as Romney. When you think of Romney, the expression “loud and proud” doesn’t come to mind.

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Wisconsin isn't just any other battleground state, and Walker’s victory wasn’t just a victory for a person but for a GOP political philosophy of courageous conservatism. As Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote on Twitter: “Tonight, Wisconsin voters rewarded political courage.” Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana also chimed in immediately about Walker's victory: "good policy is great politics."

Wisconsin’s marquee politicians embody the key criteria required for heroism in Republican ranks these days: taking a bold stand and sticking to it no matter how strong the opposition. Chris Christie has a reputation for toughness in New Jersey, but Walker has faced the full force of organized labor and liberal outrage. Ryan has been the centerpiece of President Obama’s attacks on Congressional Republicans more than arguably any other Republican in Washington. "Reince [Priebus] talks about candidates who are true to their word and campaign on issues and govern as they campaigned," says RNC political director Rick Wiley, quoting his party chairman—who also happens to be from Wisconsin. "Scott Walker and Paul Ryan are poster children for that."

Romney agrees with Walker and Ryan on the substance. The Wisconsin test is whether he will act like them. Will he try to finesse Republican ideas past voters with vague proclamations or campaign on them as Walker and Ryan have? This is also a test of the conservative agenda. If Romney chooses to run in the manner of Walker and Ryan, can he survive? 

Rush Limbaugh reports (!) that in private, Romney said he will be so bold it might make him a one-term president. But so far his campaign hasn’t acted that valiantly. Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana who preaches a version of the Wisconsin doctrine, has argued that Romney needs to be clearer about what he's going to do if for no other reason than to build a mandate for his eventual actions. Daniels is pointing to the difference between winning an election based on being anti-Obama and winning an election based on ideas.

Romney was timid about the Walker recall out of political necessity. (He didn’t say a word after the GOP primary in April.) Just like President Obama, Romney didn’t want to meddle in a local fight and risk having the outcome over which he has little control be seen as a vote about him. Neither campaign has advertised in the state.

Now that Walker has won, will Romney embrace him? Bill Kristol argues that he should rush in for the belly-hug. Kristol writes that the campaign should “associate Mitt Romney with Governor Walker’s success—and the successes of other governors—in making the case for a national agenda of conservative reform of a bloated and bankrupt welfare state.”