The suburban Milwaukee stage where Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will stand Monday evening to formally announce his entry into the 2016 Republican presidential race will be familiar to him, even if the road ahead is entirely new.
The Waukesha County Expo Center, where Walker will become the 15th Republican to officially unveil a full White House campaign, is the same venue where he celebrated a June 2012 victory as the first U.S. governor to survive a recall election, after successfully confronting organized labor the previous year. That win fueled his rise to national prominence and provides the foundation for his campaign against rival top-tier candidates such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
“I’m in,” Walker tweeted Monday morning. “I’m running for president because Americans deserve a leader who will fight and win for them.”
Often labeled by Democrats as America’s most divisive governor, Walker’s biggest and boldest political action came in 2011 when he won the right to restrict collective bargaining for most public workers in Wisconsin, instantly making him a villain to the labor movement and hero to many conservatives.
In virtually every speech he gives, Walker recounts how as many 100,000 people protested his actions. The episode, which included weeks of demonstratorscamped out below the gilded ceilings of the capitol in Madison, is his biggest Republican calling card.
“When they came in with all those protesters, they were trying to intimidate us,” Walker, 47, said late last month at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver. “Instead of backing down, we stood up and took the power out of the hands of the big-government special interests and put it firmly in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers.”
The galvanized union opposition to Walker has led to a rolling protest movement that follows him virtually everywhere he goes in a way unlike anything faced by his fellow Republicans running for the White House. Union pickets often circle the hotels, schools, and other venues where he speaks.
At the same time, the events of 2011 and 2012 assisted Walker in building a national list of supporters and donors and helped him establish relationships with key Republicans such as billionaires Charles and David Koch. Those fights and this year’s legislative victories have also provided him with fresher and more tangible accomplishments to showcase than those available to U.S. senators running for president, such as Rubio and Ted Cruz of Texas, who have been part of a Congress known mostly for gridlock in recent years.
As he talks to Republican activists, Walker continually highlights his electoral success in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican for president in more than three decades. While he hasn’t been tested in a presidential election year, Walker has won three statewide elections since November 2010, including his recall victory.
Walker is trying to position himself in the crowded field as a fresher, more conservative alternative to Bush, while still acceptable to the party’s establishment and business class. In several instances, Walker has shown a willingness to move to the right of Bush, including calling for a constitutional amendment allowing states to decide the issue of same-sex marriage on their own. That approach is said to have alienated some potential Wall Street donors and could threaten his standing with younger voters, who typically hold more relaxed views on the issue.
The primary race will play out as Republicans remains divided over how to balance ideology and pragmatism, even as issues such as same-sex marriage and the health-care act have been largely settled by the Supreme Court. It will also be a delicate balance for Walker, who polls suggest has more potential than most other candidates to win support from all three major segments of the party’s primary electorate: Christian conservatives, Tea Party activists, and business-oriented Republicans.
In his speech Monday, Walker plans to call for a “pro- growth economic plan that helps individuals and families earn, save, and achieve their piece of the American Dream,” according to excerpts released by his campaign.
“Government that is closest to the people is usually the best,” he plans to say. “This is why we should move power and money out of Washington and send it back to our states and communities in key areas like Medicaid, transportation, workforce development, and education.”
On national security, he plans to cite President Ronald Reagan, who, like Walker, served as a governor.
“During my lifetime, the best president on national security and foreign policy was a governor from California,” Walker will say. “Under his leadership, we rebuilt our military, stood up for our friends, stood up to our enemies and-without apology-stood for American values: this led to one of the most peaceful times in modern American history.”
Although he’s traveled extensively to early caucus and primary states and raised millions of dollars, Walker had pledged not to formally announce until after he signed his state’s two-year billion budget bill, something he did Sunday at a manufacturing company in suburban Milwaukee. The package avoids raising taxes while freezing tuition at University of Wisconsin campuses and cutting about $250 million in higher education funding.
While Walker scored legislative victories during the session, he also suffered several losses at the hands of fellow Republicans who control the state legislature. The biggest was the removal from the budget of an arena project he supported for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. In a move that upset some conservatives, Walker had proposed using taxpayer money to pay for half of a new $500 million arena to keep the team from leaving the state. He’s argued that paying the subsidy is better than losing the tax revenue the team generates.
“To promote adherence to his rigid partisan views and to please the special interests that have backed his campaigns, Walker has pit the people of Wisconsin against each other in contentious ideological fights,” Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida said in a statement. “He’s gutted education, refused investments in infrastructure and health care, and shuttered women’s health clinics, while pushing tax policies that have overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthiest few.”
After dropping out of college his senior year, Walker has been a politician most of his adult life, starting out as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly before moving on to become Milwaukee County executive and governor.
Even with all that experience, Walker is still sometimes described as milquetoast and there’s little question other candidates in the field can deliver fierier speeches. Instead, Walker plans to base his case on the fact that he has delivered results by, as he says, going “big” and “bold,” not moderating his beliefs or message.
His Republican rivals have pushed a storyline against him that he’s an opportunistic politician who has softened his position on ethanol when in Iowa and abortion when facing a re- election race in 2014. The governor has denied both claims.
On the right, his resolve on immigration has been questioned as reports surfaced that he was taking a softer line in private than he was in public. Walker and his team say he opposes “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, and he has acknowledged that he changed his view on a pathway to citizenship for those people.
A Harley Davidson motorcycle rider and son of a Baptist minister, Walker spent part of his childhood in Plainfield, Iowa. He often mentions the northeast Iowa community when he speaks in the state, which will host the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses in February.
The Mississippi River is all that separates Walker’s Wisconsin from Iowa, so expectations will be high for him there. He’s especially well known in the northeast part of the state, where shared media markets with Wisconsin were saturated with coverage of his union fights and past two electoral victories.
After Walker announces his candidacy, his team has mapped out an aggressive travel schedule to five states, including the early caucus and primary states of Nevada, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa, during the following six days. Although summer thunderstorms could wreak havoc with the packed schedule, Walker plans to fly commercially for the full journey as he seeks to emphasize his regular-guy persona and save some campaign cash. In four of the states, he’ll hold events at motorcycle dealerships.