Why Wisconsin’s Polarized Politics Makes Scott Walker a 2016 GOP Contender

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 12 2014 12:12 PM

The Rise of Scott Walker

Wisconsin may be the most polarized state in the Union. It’s also what might put its governor in the White House.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at the U.S. Embassy April 15, 2013 in Beijing, China.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the U.S. Embassy on April 15, 2013, in Beijing.

Photo by Andy Wong/Getty Images

Valentine’s Day isn’t just a Hallmark holiday for people in Wisconsin. It’s also the anniversary of the first protests against Gov. Scott Walker after he proposed his anti-union legislation in 2011. Students and teaching assistants were on the front lines of the protests, walking out of class to march up State Street to the Capitol with bullhorns and leaving “valentines” outside Walker’s office asking him to change his mind. During that month, the crowd of protesters swelled to 30,000, then 100,000.

But three years later, the valentines are gone. The thousands of people who came for the protests and counterprotests are gone. The stands selling anti-Walker buttons and shirts emblazoned with the pro-union groups’ iconic blue fist are gone, too. The packs of people with bullhorns aren’t roaming downtown anymore. Now, only a handful of people gather in the Capitol rotunda every day at noon to sing protest songs. But guess who is still here?

This November, Walker will fight his third gubernatorial race in four years. And although he’s not as loathed as he was three years ago, Wisconsin is just as polarized. After all, this is a state whose two senators vote against each other more often than any two senators from the same state. This is a state where the first openly gay senator elected cannot get married. This is a state that petitioned for a historic recall (disclosure: I signed the petition), then overturned it. This is an electorate who voted for Walker in June, then voted for President Obama in November of the same year.

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“This is a state that does not have uniformly predictable aggregate political views,” says Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “That’s an academic way of saying people don’t vote the same way, and it can be hard to predict.”

The state of Wisconsin is in a semi-permanent identity crisis, and that crisis has both helped Walker gain statewide prominence and made people want to kick him out of office. But the June 2012 recall election against Walker could severely backfire on the people who organized it. "For Walker, the recall is in some ways the gift that keeps on giving," says Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette University Law School Poll. "The recall established him nationally in conservative circles, gave him much more visibility nationally than he would have had otherwise, and most importantly let him have a national fundraising base."

That national fundraising base has been a mixed blessing for Walker. A prank call that he credulously took from a radio host impersonating David Koch will haunt him for the rest of his career. The cost may have been worth it, though—the real David Koch donated $1 million to groups supporting Walker in 2012, and the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity shelled out $10 million on behalf of the governor. Other out-of-state millionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess also got in the race. But it’s not just a handful of wealthy magnates financing his campaign—just take a look at this map of Walker contributions from 2012. Since Act 10—Walker’s controversial collective bargaining law aimed at labor unions—was introduced, only 38 percent of donations to Walker’s campaign have come from inside the state.

That isn’t to say Walker does not have support within Wisconsin—after all, he won the recall election by a wider margin than when he was first elected in 2010. Surprisingly, Walker’s job approval has fluctuated very little during the past two years, especially when compared to other divisive governors from the 2010 class like John Kasich of Ohio. “The consistency over a two-year period is striking for how harsh political attitudes toward Walker have been,” Franklin says.

But more than the lingering resentment over his collective bargaining law, Walker will have to grapple with slow job growth. In his 2010 campaign, Walker promised to create 250,000 jobs during his first term. With one year left, that number is less than halfway there. Wisconsin ranks 37th in job creation in that time, lagging behind other Midwestern states.

Social issues could also affect Walker’s fortunes. In June, Walker signed a mandatory ultrasound bill, which included a provision that would have shuttered the only Planned Parenthood abortion clinic outside of Milwaukee and Madison. That part of the law has been tied up in the courts.* He also turned down expanded Medicaid funds from Obamacare, leaving 83,000 people living below the poverty line to wait until spring for state coverage.

Enter Mary Burke, Walker’s Democratic opponent. Burke’s main strength is in her family business, Trek, which employs 1,600 people. But two weeks after Burke entered the race, 70 percent of Wisconsin residents either had no opinion of her or didn’t know who she was. That number was the same three months later. Although she's more charismatic than Walker’s former opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, she still risks running the same sort of phlegmatic campaign that cost Barrett the recall election.

Burke has never run a partisan campaign, and her idealism shows. Instead of focusing on high-profile events in Madison or Milwaukee, Burke drives around the state seven days a week in her Ford Escape to meet with locals. She’s also stressed that she wants the majority of her contributions to come from Wisconsin residents. Though she opposes Act 10, Burke doesn’t want to use that as a wrecking ball against Walker, according to Burke spokesman Joe Zepecki. Instead, they’ll be campaigning on jobs and raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour—an idea 62 percent of voters support and Walker vehemently opposes.

In the meantime, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has already scooped up maryburke.com and is defining her as “Madison Millionaire Mary Burke.” (Of course, Republicans touted fellow millionaire Ron Johnson as a “jobs creator” when he ran for Senate in 2010.)

At this stage, Burke needs to tap wealthy in-state donors. Her campaign raised a healthy $1.7 million by the end of the year—a figure tripled by the Walker campaign. “Scott Walker is going to have more money than we do. We know that,” Zepecki says. “We don’t need to outspend him—we need to spend smarter.”

Could election fatigue also cause a lower turnout? Not likely, Franklin says. Still, it’s been enough of a drain that one-third of voters have stopped talking to friends and family members about politics because of conflicts over the recall. “There’s certainly been a cost, psychically, to the public,” Franklin said. “They decided it was better to stop talking about it at all.”

Even if voters don’t want to talk about it, the implications of the upcoming election may be even bigger this time around. The 2014 election is just one variable in a potential Walker 2016 presidential run. There have certainly been plenty of think pieces speculating that he’s going to run for president, and Walker isn’t doing much to dispel the rumors. He’s a regular on Morning Joe and at national Republican events, he headed the Republican Governors Association, he writes op-eds in the Washington Post about the state of national politics, and he came out with a memoir last year. He gets around.

“He is very ambitious, he’s frequently underestimated, and he’s young,” Mayer says. “Republicans love him, Democrats loathe him … Ronald Reagan was the same.” (Walker name-dropped Reagan 11 times in his memoir.) But unlike Reagan, Walker is no great orator, and he certainly doesn’t sound like a Beltway insider. Unlike his fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, Walker sports a thick “Mawaukee” accent—just listen to any of his speeches about growing “jabs” in “Wis-CAN-sin.”

At this point, the question isn’t so much “Will Walker run?” as “Why wouldn’t he?” That said, it’s hard to predict what lurking scandal could upend a governor’s ambitions in the next two years (see: Christie, Chris). Walker is already entangled in a complex John Doe investigation examining outside groups’ spending during the recall. The Wisconsin Club for Growth has sued to shut down the investigation, but it’s unclear whether the fundraising shadiness could be linked back to Walker.

At an event in Washington to promote his book a few months ago, Walker was asked who his ideal candidate for president would be. Walker’s response sounded suspiciously familiar: "An ideal candidate to me would be a current or former governor," Walker said. "Just because I think governors have executive experience and, more importantly, I think there's a real sense across America that people want an outsider."

Correction, Feb. 12, 2014: This article originally said Wisconsin's mandatory ultrasound law shut down a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. That provision of the law is being challenged in court, and the clinic in question remains open.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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