When Scott Walker won the governorship of Wisconsin in 2010, state Democrats reacted with a collective shrug, but Tim Cullen was perhaps the least concerned of all. The retired state senator had known Walker since 1993, when the two spent a series of summer evenings sitting together on concrete benches outside a Janesville hospital that was caring for both Cullen’s mother and Walker’s father. The men hadn’t talked politics, but they’d talked plenty, and Cullen had been impressed with, and grown fond of, the easygoing rookie assemblyman.
Cullen learned of Walker’s 2010 victory as he was enjoying his own. The state Senate’s former Democratic majority leader had just returned to politics and retaken his old seat. That meant he’d no longer be watching Walker; he’d be working with him. But Cullen had teamed up with Republicans in Madison before. And Democrats who had served with Walker in the Legislature already liked him; he was a friendly, familiar face who hadn’t exactly run on a radical platform. It appeared that both sides would get along just fine.
Walker, however, had other plans. In December, a month after he was elected, he told guests at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon that he intended to curb the power of public-sector unions. In fact, he said, he might even “decertify” — essentially, disband — them. But no one seems to have taken him seriously. Then, in January 2011, two weeks after taking the oath of office, he visited a roofing, window, and siding distribution company owned by billionaire Diane Hendricks, a major donor to his campaign. In a conversation videotaped by a documentary filmmaker but not made public until more than a year later, Hendricks asked Walker whether he was going to take on the unions and perhaps even make Wisconsin a right-to-work state — that is, a state which prohibits unions from making their employees pay dues. “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget-adjustment bill,” Walker replied. “The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions, because you use divide and conquer. “… That opens the door once we do that.”
Democrats in the Capitol never saw it coming. “For the first five or six weeks” of Walker’s administration “it was pretty much business as usual,” Cullen recalls. “And then everything changed with the collective-bargaining bill.” The Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, known more commonly as Act 10, fell like a flashbang on Madison. The state faced a $3.6 billion deficit, and Walker had campaigned on a pledge to rein in government spending by forcing public-sector employees to contribute more of their salaries to their pensions and health care packages. He had not, however, disclosed how he would achieve these concessions. While his top staffers spent the first month of his term preparing to negotiate with the unions, the new governor was quietly getting ready to do the opposite. One late-January afternoon, Walker gathered his staff and shared his plan: He wanted to eliminate all aspects of collective bargaining and ban public employees from contributing to unions or maintaining membership in them.
Members of Code Pink protest as Walker appears before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (Getty Images)The new governor’s staff was dumbfounded, according to Madison Republicans and Walker himself, who recalls the scene in his recently published memoir, Unintimidated. So were the top Republicans in the Statehouse, with whom Walker shared his initial proposal. Some of them warned Walker — governor of the state that birthed public-sector unions in 1939 — that the move would backfire, and that he would be cast as an enemy of workers.
Walker listened and made a few key adjustments. (The revised plan allowed public-sector workers to join unions and pay dues, but made dues voluntary; it also allowed very limited collective bargaining.) He briefed the rest of the Republican caucus on his proposal, and then, a few days later, he invited the state’s two top Democratic legislators — Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca — to his Capitol office. He explained his plan, and informed his guests that he would be publicly introducing it later that afternoon.
“I was stunned. Just stunned,” Barca recalls. “Because he didn’t campaign on that.” He and Miller tried frantically to dissuade Walker, pleading with him to reconsider. The governor wouldn’t budge. With increasing dismay, Miller and Barca began to understand something about Scott Walker that many others have also learned the hard way. “Once his mind is made up,” Barca says, “he doesn’t give an inch on anything.”
Desperate to block the bill, Miller and his Senate Democrats did the only thing they could think of: They fled the state. The senators checked into a Best Western across the border in Rockford, Illinois, determined to rob the chamber of the quorum it needed to pass any legislation related to fiscal matters — including Walker’s Budget Repair Bill. They would not return, they said, unless Walker removed the collective-bargaining language from the legislation. In response, Walker pressed Senate Republicans to excise the fiscal parts of the bill, so that the union-busting measures could be passed without a quorum.
By then, more than 100,000 protesters had descended upon the Capitol, with thousands of them camping out under the rotunda. They barricaded hallways and sang pro-union songs. Walker had made practically no attempt to explain Act 10 to the public when it was introduced — a decision he would come to count as his biggest mistake of the entire episode — and the opposition quickly turned public opinion against it. Walker and his family began to receive death threats. Republicans not only feared the political backlash Walker’s legislative trick might provoke, they feared for their safety. They refused to do as he asked.
The governor, meanwhile, remained unflappable. He held press conferences defending his proposal, but otherwise went about his business, seemingly immune to the pandemonium around him. Rep. Paul Ryan, who says he spoke or texted with Walker every day during the episode, couldn’t believe how collected his friend was. “He took on the most fierce political opposition I have ever seen anyone endure in politics. And he did it gracefully, he did it without malice, he did it without responding in kind to his detractors,” Ryan says.
Barca remembers holding a press conference during which he blasted Walker in especially harsh and personal terms for dividing the state. “I met with him the next day, and you’d never know I said those things,” he recalls. “There was no tension at all.” Barca laughs, then lets out a long sigh. “He just doesn’t take things personally.”
Knowing that Democrats expected him to make the next move, Walker dispatched two senior aides to meet with Cullen and Bob Jauch, another Democratic senator, near the Illinois border. Both sides agree that Walker was genuinely hoping they would find enough room for compromise, at least on the peripheries of the bill, to persuade the Democrats to return to the Capitol. The governor’s aides negotiated earnestly, wading deeply into the complex legislation. Yet the senators’ direct interactions with Walker — limited to sporadic phone calls placed from the governor’s residence — were short, awkward, and “totally without substance,” Cullen remembers.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca: “Once his mind is made up, he doesn’t give an inch on anything.”
“Our conversations were just pleasantries,” he says of the calls between Wisconsin and Illinois. “It was strange. I mean really, it didn’t move the ball forward or backward. It was nice to hear from the governor, and nice to talk with him, but it became clear that he wasn’t going to be the detail guy at all.”
Cullen and Jauch began to accept that there was nothing they could say to Walker or his negotiators that would change the governor’s mind about the collective-bargaining language, so they set out to find someone who could. They spent weeks having private conversations with colleagues in the Republican establishment — old buddies with whom they had worked for decades — trying to find a way to reach Walker. In their years of public service, the senators had learned that every officeholder has someone they listen to — a confidant or adviser who can influence their thinking. But as the weeks wore on and their back-channel outreach campaign turned up nothing, they came to a startling conclusion: Walker had no such person. He was his own top adviser, his own chief strategist. “Tim and I both were struggling with who he is — with his hidden personality,” Jauch says. “If you ask the question of who guides Scott Walker, I don’t know that anybody knows the answer.”
One day while he was in Illinois, Cullen received a call from Walker that he hasn’t forgotten. “I heard you were sick,” Walker said to Cullen, who had indeed been fighting a cold. Cullen told Walker that he was recovering and thanked him for his concern. The call ended within a few minutes. As Cullen remembers it, that afternoon Walker began a press conference by addressing a question about whether he’d been in contact with the out-of-state senators. Yes, Walker said. In fact, just that morning he’d had a conversation with Cullen. “I was set up,” Cullen says. (One of Walker’s negotiators, who asked not to be named, accuses Cullen of engaging in “revisionist history” and describes that phone call as “positive.”)
When it became clear that neither the absentee Democrats nor the governor planned to back down, Republican lawmakers finally did what Walker wanted: They separated the collective-bargaining language from the fiscal measures and approved the bill. Walker signed it exactly one month after introducing it. The senators returned to Madison and, in concert with organized labor and progressive activists from around the country, did everything possible to reverse the law. They filed multiple court appeals. They attempted to unseat a conservative state Supreme Court justice. They demanded a series of recall elections aimed at removing six GOP state senators and Walker himself. While two of the Senate recalls were successful, the effort to oust Walker was not. In the end, Walker was still governor, and Act 10 was law. The nice young man from the concrete benches outside the Janesville hospital had crushed Wisconsin’s public-sector unions and transformed the state’s political landscape.
Union members protest inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 4, 2011, in Madison. (Getty Images)IT’S A SOGGY spring day in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and Scott Walker is the only one of us wearing boots. He strides securely over the mist-slickened stones at the edge of a pond on the new fish farm he has come to christen — part of the Wisconsin Walleye Initiative he helped green-light last year — while his staff, his security personnel, and I tread gingerly in our traction-less loafers. Unlike the rest of us, Walker knew what he was getting into before he arrived here. And, as the Boy Scout motto enjoins, he came prepared.
Still youthful-looking at 46, of average height and build, with curiously small hands and a soft, nasal voice that never seems to rise — even when hitting the high note of a speech or delivering the punch line of a joke — Walker, wearing jeans and a heavy barn jacket, melds effortlessly into the camouflage-clad crowd. His pale skin contrasts sharply with his black hair, which has receded a bit above his temples and entirely abandoned the crown of his head. Under a steel-gray sky, Walker makes his way from one person to the next, greeting each with a smile and a gentle hello. Within minutes he’s eliciting laughs about the allegedly lackluster fishing in neighboring Minnesota. He tells tales of hunting trips, Harley rides, and how he caught “a 14-inch” walleye on his first cast of last year’s season. When it’s time for him to deliver remarks at the groundbreaking, he does so quickly and informally, speaking in nearly inaudible tones. The crowd of a few dozen claps politely when he finishes. Then they begin migrating across the property, where the governor will drop fish eggs into a pond.
Walker doesn’t seem like a man who is likely to be elected governor this November for the third time in four years — let alone one who is considered a top-tier contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s not a scholarly policy wonk like Bobby Jindal. He doesn’t have the dynastic resources of Jeb Bush or Rand Paul. He isn’t a skillful orator like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Nor is he a commanding, charismatic presence like his friend Chris Christie. He is, in fact, more like a reverse Christie: The New Jersey governor is belligerent on the outside and moderate on the inside; Walker is a rock-ribbed conservative in a genial, unexceptional package.
That’s what makes Walker’s polarizing politics seem so strange. The union fight left Wisconsin bitterly divided, but, unlike Christie, Walker doesn’t behave like a brawler. In interviews with dozens of officials, aides, and activists from both parties, it was hard to find anyone who could muster a negative word about Walker the man — even among those who make a living berating Walker the governor. “I’ll be honest with you,” says Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “He’s just a very pleasant guy.”
Being a pleasant guy — agreeable, inoffensive — isn’t an obvious political strength, but it has been one for Walker. His soft-spoken nature and his humdrum personal style have led his opponents repeatedly to underestimate his ambition, his determination, and his strategic skill. And as his handling of the Act 10 fight revealed, Walker’s innocuous bearing has allowed him to move calmly toward his prey without startling it.
Jauch, whose career in Madison has spanned five governors, knew Walker when he was a young assemblyman, and the two worked closely together as chairmen of their chambers’ respective Corrections committees. He likes Walker personally, but has come to fear him politically: “I think anyone who’s honest will acknowledge that he’s very personable. He’s a very pleasant individual to be with, and to speak with.” The Democrat stops abruptly, searching for the perfect way to capture the conundrum. “He has an altar boy’s appearance,” Jauch finally says. “But Darth Vader writes his policies.”
“He has an altar boy’s appearance. But Darth Vader writes his policies.”
If Walker’s friendly, down-to-earth persona is somehow an act meant to lull his political foes, he inhabits the role like Daniel Day-Lewis preparing to play Lincoln. He greets guests at the governor’s residence by hanging up their coats and bringing them glasses of water. He buys bleacher seats at Milwaukee Brewers games and enjoys a Leinenkugel beer with the locals. He packs two ham sandwiches into a brown paper bag every day for lunch. He rides his Harley wearing a full helmet and interacts anonymously with other motorists. He mows the lawn of the small, nondescript home he still owns a few miles outside Milwaukee wearing jean shorts and torn-up Nikes.
“We always got along just fine — and we still do to this day, frankly,” says Barca, the Democratic assembly leader. “He’s very affable, easy to talk to, easy to get along with. And I think that’s part of his political success. It’s very disarming.” Which is exactly what his 2016 rivals should be worried about.
IN THE PENTHOUSE suite of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, where the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s annual retreat is being held, Walker is sipping from a miniature bottle of cranberry juice and telling me about his childhood. His mother, Patricia, grew up on a farm without indoor plumbing, a property that family lore held was the only purchase they ever made on credit. His grandmother, Eleanor Fitch, was a commanding and constant presence in his life who bought everything else — vehicles, farm equipment, appliances, clothing, even food — only when she had enough cash. “Don’t spend money you don’t have, Scott,” he says she often admonished — a credo that pretty well summarizes his fiscal policy today.
What money the Walkers did have wasn’t much. “We didn’t realize it until later in life,” Walker says of himself and his younger brother, David, “but we were poor.” The family didn’t even own a TV. But most of the members of the Baptist church where Walker’s father, Llewellyn, was the pastor were farmers; because of that, Walker says, “we ate like kings.” His family had a shelf reserved at the town’s walk-in cooler, and parishioners kept it stocked. “We would have good corn, nice cuts of meat sometimes, plenty of fresh bread,” he adds, with a flicker of emotion.
Marquette student Scott Walker, 1990. (Marquette University Libraries/Department of Special Collections and University Archives)Walker was 3 when his family moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Plainfield, Iowa, where they lived in the parsonage attached to the church. Llewellyn preached on Sundays and spent the rest of the week tending to his small flock. Patricia worked part time keeping the books for a clothing store. They finally bought a black-and-white TV in time for Scott to watch Gerald Ford, his father’s preferred candidate, lose the 1976 presidential race. Scott began to ask Llewellyn — who served on the City Council — to explain local policy debates.
The Walkers moved to Delavan, Wisconsin, a slightly less isolated agricultural town, when Scott was in third grade. He kept up his interest in politics, but as he grew older people assumed it was just a lark; everyone knew Scott was going to go into the family business. From a young age, he took part in his father’s worship services, starting with Scripture readings and call-and-response rituals. As he grew older, he occasionally stepped into the pulpit and preached full sermons in his father’s place. He grew so comfortable in the role that other pastors would ask him to speak when they were away. Churchgoers in Delavan figured it was only a matter of time before Scott was shipped off to the seminary.
Scott, however, behaved like a boy who was still searching — and his approach was both systematic and exhaustive. He joined practically every sports team and extracurricular organization that Delavan-Darien High School had to offer — from the foreign-language and library clubs to the pep band and symphonic orchestra. He played football and ran track and cross-country. He also played basketball, sometimes wearing a pair of Kurt Rambis-style goggles on the court. Keith Showers, who was Walker’s track teammate, recalls him fondly. “He was always a sharp guy, and a genuinely nice person,” Showers says. (Also “pretty quick,” he adds.) When he learned that Walker had been elected governor of Wisconsin, Showers, who now lives in Orlando, Florida, “was surprised, but not that surprised — because to my recollection Scott always had a plan to do something big.”
Tom Scharfenberg, who was the phys-ed teacher and athletic director at Delavan-Darien, and who knew the Walker family well, recalls that Walker the athlete wasn’t especially gifted, but he was self-aware — and he really wanted to win. “He was a good track runner, and that was about it. And he knew it,” Scharfenberg says. “But he was a very competitive person. I can’t even remember what race he ran, but he became a good runner.” (Scharfenberg’s warm feelings about Walker don’t extend to his former student’s politics. “Being a retired teacher, and seeing what he’s done to the teachers, I’ve lost a bit of respect for him,” he says.)
Walker was 17 and sporting an exemplary mullet when he took his first trip to Washington. It was 1985, and the Eagle Scout had already represented his town at Badger Boys State, an American Legion program that brought together hundreds of Wisconsin high school students for a weeklong interactive seminar on government. There, he and another boy had been selected to be Wisconsin’s “senators” at the Boys Nation event in Washington, where they would be joined by pairs of student senators from other states. Walker remembers being captivated by the capital, with its buildings and monuments that radiated power and prestige. Yet something else struck him during that visit, too: that Washington’s leaders were just ordinary people. There was nothing superhuman, or even particularly exceptional, about them. It was an epiphany that changed the way he understood himself and his potential. “I suddenly had a different view of what my future might hold,” he says.
“I’m a policy guy myself. Personally, I put up with politics to do policy,” Paul Ryan says. “But Scott enjoys the sport of it as well. And he’s been very good at it.”
By the time he went to Boys Nation, Walker knew that he didn’t want to be a minister — “it wasn’t my calling,” he says — and he was less than enthusiastic about his fallback plan, a career in sales. After the Washington trip, he turned to politics. His passion for strategy and tactics would soon become apparent to everyone he encountered in Republican circles, including a young conservative activist named Paul Ryan. (Walker and Ryan grew up in nearby towns and hung out at many of the same spots. Each worked at his respective local McDonalds. But they didn’t meet until a state Republican convention in the early 1990s.) “I’m a policy guy myself. Personally, I put up with politics to do policy,” Ryan says. “But Scott enjoys the sport of it as well. And he’s been very good at it.”
Walker’s strategic skills weren’t entirely evident at first. He was a sophomore leading an antiabortion group at Milwaukee’s Marquette University in 1988 when he decided to run his first political race, for student-government president. The campaign became heated, and on election eve, the school newspaper, the Marquette Tribune, endorsed Walker’s rival — prompting some angry Walker allies to empty newsstands around campus, according to an investigation of his college career that was published years later by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and PolitiFact Wisconsin. The episode was the first in what would prove to be a pattern of damaging missteps made by those who attached themselves to Walker and his political apparatus. The student paper printed a scathing editorial the next day condemning the Walker supporters’ tactics, and he lost the election.
Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan (right) listen as Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in 2012. (Getty Images)A defeated Walker took a part-time job selling computer warranties with IBM for $10 an hour, and then a full-time job with the American Red Cross. He says he intended to continue to work toward his degree a few credits at a time, “but it became obvious after a while there was no way.” Walker faced a dilemma: He could quit the job and finish school, or he could stay employed and leave school without his degree. Walker, who grew up poor and had watched friends struggle to find work after college, says the decision wasn’t too difficult. “You go to college for an education, not just a job,” he says. “But I think, particularly at that age, most of us were stressing out about finding a job.” He dropped out of Marquette after the spring semester of 1990, certain that he would someday complete his degree. (So far, he has not.)
Walker might have been too busy for school, but he found plenty of time for politics, working with fellow Republicans on campus and around Milwaukee. In January 1990, he volunteered for the primary campaign of the most socially conservative candidate in a state Assembly race, during which he met and befriended Brad Courtney, who today chairs the state Republican Party. That same year, Republicans needed a candidate to compete in a heavily Democratic state Assembly district, and Walker jumped at the opportunity to challenge the incumbent, Gwen Moore, who today represents Milwaukee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Wisconsin Republicans say Walker knew he couldn’t win, but thought his stint as sacrificial lamb would build goodwill with the state party.
Moore doesn’t buy it. “He thought he could win, because he was white, good-looking, and young,” she says, describing Walker as “very self-assured and very self-important.” Moore’s anger rises when she recalls his campaign against her. She labels his use of tough-on-crime rhetoric against a black incumbent in an overwhelmingly white district “dog whistle” politics. (Walker’s office declined to comment on Moore’s accusations.) Moore clobbered him at the ballot box, and she says Walker never placed a concession call on election night. It would turn out to be a rare example of Walker making a personal enemy of a political one.
WALKER’S WIFE LIKES to tell the story of their courtship, which began in 1992 in a smoky karaoke bar called Saz’s on the West Side of Milwaukee. The tale proffers Walker as a charmingly determined regular Joe, but it also hints at the alien-invasion, resistance-is-futile side of him that Cullen and his Democratic colleagues described encountering during the Act 10 fight.
Walker and his wife, Tonette, in 2012. (Getty Images)During the course of the evening, Walker, then 24 and built like a dark-haired javelin, “locked eyes” with Tonette Tarantino, a doe-eyed woman known for her infectious giggle. Before he left, Walker dropped a napkin with his number on it on her table and politely asked her to call him. Although Tarantino was a widow 11 years his senior, she did as he requested. Their first date, a few days later, went so well that they met again the following night, each accompanied by some friends. At one point, Tonette says, Walker pulled Tonette’s roommate aside and told her that he’d found his future wife. “We were laughing like crazy, like, ‘Is this guy kidding?’ ” Tonette says.
But Walker wasn’t kidding. He set out to learn everything he could about Tonette — and then swung into action. Despite working long hours with the Red Cross, he picked her up for late-night ice cream cones. He was on time, every time, and he came bearing gifts. On one of their early dates, Walker told Tonette about his failed Assembly bid and his intention to run again soon. Then, she says, he looked at her and said matter-of-factly: “Someday I’m going to be governor.” It was the second crazy-sounding prediction Walker had made, and Tonette says she privately laughed this one off, too. Meanwhile, Tonette’s family, a Democratic clan with union ties, was wary. There were concerns about his age and his Republican politics.
None of it mattered. Walker soon overcame all objections. In October, after just five months of dating, Scott took Tonette back to Saz’s for karaoke night, where he serenaded her with Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and proposed. They married a few months later, on a frigid February afternoon, and Walker, who loves to sing (especially on the treadmill, where lately he’s been smitten with Pharrell’s “Happy”), repeated his Elvis impersonation, this time accompanied by a live band. Courtney gave a groomsman’s toast in which he remarked on Walker’s persistence. “When Scott decides to do something,” Courtney said, “he’s all in.”
Walker’s successful wooing of his wife was the start of a 22-year winning streak that, as of today, remains unbroken. It also contains what would become all the hallmarks of a Scott Walker campaign — the nonthreatening approach, the ambitious goal, the relentless determination.
In the months after their marriage, Walker, who had been waiting for his moment to make another bid for the Statehouse, saw — and seized — his opportunity. Local legend has it that he wore out three pairs of sneakers campaigning for an Assembly seat that had opened up in Republican-friendly Wauwatosa. He won the June 1993 special election at age 25.
Walker’s successful wooing of his wife was the start of a 22-year winning streak that, as of today, remains unbroken.
Children arrived quickly thereafter — first Matt, then Alex — and between backyard football games and camping trips, Walker began to make a name for himself in Madison. He chaired the lower chamber’s Corrections Committee and sponsored “truth-in-sentencing” legislation aimed at ending early releases for convicted criminals. He also fought for abortion restrictions and for identification-verification requirements at election centers. And he earned a reputation for political savvy. Milwaukee’s ABC TV affiliate began to bring Walker on as a guest analyst during elections, asking him to break down voting patterns and shed light on campaign strategy. “He was a good pundit,” recalls Rebecca Kleefisch, who was an anchor for the station at the time and is now Walker’s lieutenant governor.
But Walker didn’t want to be a pundit. And he didn’t want to be a career assemblyman. As he closed in on a decade in the Legislature, it became increasingly clear that he needed to figure out a way to break out of the pack. “There were so many people in the Assembly who were set up to be governor,” Tonette says. “So what he would say is, ‘I don’t know what God has in store for me. But I need to have a plan.’ “
WALKER’S CHANCE TO move up in Wisconsin politics came in early 2002, when Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament retired abruptly in the face of a pension scandal. Walker shouldn’t have been able to win the special election; Milwaukee County is overwhelmingly Democratic, and although the county executive is chosen in a nonpartisan election, Walker had already branded himself a fiscal conservative. Some of Walker’s friends — including Ryan, then a second-term congressman from Janesville — thought he was crazy to run.
But Walker gamed out the demographics of the county and hit competitive areas on foot. His friendly-neighbor manner, which lent itself poorly to the podium, was, it turned out, irresistible at eye level. “It was fascinating to watch,” says Kleefisch, who covered the race for her TV station. “And it was even more fascinating to watch Democrats come to the table and vote for this Republican guy in Milwaukee County.” Walker won the special election by 10 points. Two years later he would be elected by an even wider margin to serve a full four-year term. No longer would he be lumped in with the rest of the young lawmakers in the Legislature; in Wisconsin, he was on his way to being a bona fide Republican star.
The new county executive had run as a fiscal reformer, but he soon learned that the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, most of whom were Democrats, did not share his “less is more” approach to government. Walker repeatedly vetoed parts of their budgets in an attempt to slash spending; they repeatedly overrode him. Determined to achieve a balanced budget, he settled on another strategy to cut costs: Win financial concessions from public workers. Union leaders resisted. Walker warned them that layoffs were the alternative. He says labor leaders called his bluff, daring him to fire county workers. After surveying the situation and seeing no other acceptable way to achieve his goal, he did just that. Walker got his balanced budget, but, in his book, he describes the failed fight to win concessions from organized labor as a “searing experience” — one he says was “the ultimate source of the reforms I enacted as governor.”
Walker would arguably bring stronger credentials to a national primary fight than anyone else in today’s GOP.
Searing though it may have been, the battle earned Walker more buzz within Republican circles, and in February 2005, after less than three years as county executive, he launched his first gubernatorial campaign, against Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. But the state’s GOP establishment was behind Mark Green, a congressman with whom Walker had served in the Assembly. After 13 months of campaigning, Walker acknowledged that he couldn’t raise enough money to win, and he knew that dragging things out would only hurt his future prospects. He told supporters in March 2006 that it was “God’s will for me to step out of the race,” and threw his support to Green — who lost to Doyle by 8 points.
The aborted campaign briefly dimmed Walker’s star, but some suggest that his handling of the situation was part of a long pattern of canny strategic moves. “This is a person who has always taken advantage of his opportunities,” says Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University and the director of the Marquette Law School Poll. “As a legislator he supported some legislation that gained him some visibility. “… Then when the county executive office opened up unexpectedly, he was in good position to seek that office from the Legislature. Then in 2006, by starting a run for governor but backing away when it became clear that someone else was leadership’s first choice, you saw again him taking advantage of an opportunity — albeit in an odd way — by gracefully bowing out and leaving himself in strong position for 2010. In the end, that set him up as the heir apparent.”
Indeed, not long after winning reelection as county executive in 2008 with his widest margin of victory yet, Walker entered the 2010 governor’s race as the favorite and trounced former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann in the GOP primary by 20 points. In the general election, Walker faced Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, with whom he had clashed for the previous several years. The campaign was competitive but not especially exciting; the only part of Walker’s platform that raised eyebrows was his pledge to create 250,000 new jobs in his first four years — a promise that Democrats emphasize he has come nowhere near fulfilling. (According to PolitiFact Wisconsin, “for the first three full years under Walker, the state added 91,678 jobs. That’s about one third of what he promised.”) When he won the race, by nearly 6 points, no one saw what was coming next.
SCOTT WALKER IS NOT charismatic. He did not graduate from college. He is charming in small groups but unremarkable in front of large crowds. In short, he lacks many of the attributes normally found in presidential candidates. And yet he would arguably bring stronger credentials to a national primary fight than anyone else in today’s GOP. He’s a governor with extensive executive experience. He cut taxes. He opposes abortion. He turned a massive budget deficit into a surplus. He’s an outdoorsman who touts the Second Amendment. He challenged, and defeated, organized labor. There are some key areas into which he hasn’t yet waded — immigration, foreign policy — but if history is any indication, whatever positions he stakes out will be perfectly attuned to the mood of his party’s right wing, presented in a way that doesn’t alienate the establishment.
Walker stands on the North Lawn of the White House. (Getty Images)”He appeals to the grassroots base, as well as your chamber-of-commerce types that are often on different sides of the big issues,” says Matt Batzel, state director of American Majority, a conservative activist group. “In Wisconsin, he’s been able to have a foot in both camps and have credibility with both.” Tate, the Democratic Party chairman, puts it slightly differently: “He’s got all the extremism of Rand Paul, packaged better. … He believes everything Todd Akin believes, but he’s not stupid enough to say it out loud.” (Walker did recently moderate his rhetoric on Wisconsin’s gay-marriage ban ever so slightly, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he’s not certain about the constitutionality of the law. “Voters don’t talk to me about that,” he said. “They talk to me about the economy. They talk to me about their kids’ schools.”)
Walker won’t discuss the question of 2016. He consistently deflects inquiries about his plans by joking that the job he really wants is president of Harley-Davidson. It’s possible he’s really in doubt about running: “People don’t realize the toll this has taken on him and his family; this makes three elections in four years,” says one prominent Wisconsin Republican who is a close family friend of the Walkers. “He and Tonette are pretty tired.”
But there may be a more strategic purpose for his demurrals: Walker can’t turn to 2016 until he’s taken care of 2014. The governor faces a strong challenge from Mary Burke, a former executive with the Trek bicycle company. Franklin’s latest Marquette Law School poll found Walker and Burke in a “dead heat,” with each taking 46 percent of the vote. (The state’s sharp ideological divide ensures that any race involving Walker will be close, but he’s still widely expected to prevail in November.)
Meanwhile, Wisconsinites aren’t crazy about the idea of Walker running for president: In the Marquette survey, 27 percent of respondents said they would like to see him run, while 67 percent said they would not. When asked, “Do you think any governor can run for president and still handle their duties as governor?” 65 percent said no — a figure that included 52 percent of Republicans. Walker is wise, then, to keep his eyes on the road back to the Governor’s Mansion for now.
One storm cloud looming over Walker this year, and with potential ramifications far beyond, is an infamous pair of “John Doe” investigations — so named because they are sealed by state law and conducted in private. The second probe, which has been halted and reopened by local court orders, is looking into possible illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and conservative outside groups during the 2012 recall race; Walker’s attorneys are reportedly near a deal to close the case. The original investigation, which closed in March 2013, was launched in response to reports of Walker’s employees in the county executive’s office doing 2010 campaign work on the taxpayers’ dime; it resulted in the convictions of six people, three of them former Walker aides, and prison time. To add insult to injury, emails released as part of the probe showed Walker’s aides trading racist and homophobic jokes.
Walker’s temperament is perfect for political rope-a-dope — for allowing the opposition to pummel him, until they knock themselves out.
In interviews with dozens of Wisconsin Republicans, none of whom would speak on the record when asked about Walker’s weaknesses, one consistent criticism leveled at the governor is that he has not, over the years, surrounded himself with good people. It was a problem at Marquette, where the newspaper theft wound up defining his campaign; it was a problem when he was county executive; and it was evident during the Act 10 fight, when Walker’s staff put him on the phone with a man who claimed to be billionaire industrialist and mega-donor David Koch. The man requested an update on the protests, and suggested planting a “troublemaker” in the crowd to undermine the opposition’s legitimacy. Walker replied by saying his office had “thought about that,” but decided against it. Unfortunately for the governor, he was speaking not to Koch but to the editor of a progressive publication called the Buffalo Beast, which promptly published audio of the prank call on its website.
Walker’s greatest challenge, however, for 2014 and beyond, will be overcoming his reputation as the governor who split his state in two. An afternoon stroll around Walker’s own neighborhood illustrates the problem: Dennis Doehr, a 74-year-old retired electrician who lives near the governor, tells me that Walker has turned neighbors into “enemies.”
The notion that he has divided Wisconsin strikes a nerve in Walker. The only time he grew animated during our interview was when I asked if he regretted the role he played in creating the schism in his state. “There are many people, many pundits and other commentators, who suggest that somehow “… what I did — particularly early in 2011 — is the reason for that,” Walker said. “They tend to gloss over the fact that in 2000 and 2004, the state of Wisconsin was the closest blue state in America in the presidential elections.” Walker paused, then added: “So this idea that somehow I polarized politics in Wisconsin is fiction.”
IF SCOTT WALKER intends to be president, you can bet that he’s already told Tonette — and you can bet that he already has a plan. It is not hard to imagine what it looks like: In the primary, surrounded by the country’s most talented and ambitious Republican officeholders, Walker sits back and lets Christie, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, and the rest tear each other apart. While they attempt to broaden their appeal beyond a specific segment of the GOP base, Walker calmly makes the case that he has already united a fractured Republican Party around core issues everyone in the GOP agrees on: cutting taxes, reducing spending, balancing budgets, and weakening the political influence of organized labor.
Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Sen. Rand Paul are potential 2016 rivals. (Getty Images)In the general election he gets hit hard by the Democratic nominee. But, as he proved in both 2010 and the recall election, Walker’s temperament is perfect for political rope-a-dope — that is, for allowing the opposition to pummel him, “a very pleasant guy,” until they knock themselves out. Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who lost both races, tried repeatedly during each campaign to get at Walker with personal barbs. He failed, and made Walker look more sympathetic, and more statesmanlike, in the process. “You can’t get to him,” says one Walker adviser, recalling Barrett’s unsuccessful attempts to goad him. “You just cannot do it.” Walker’s longtime friend Courtney agrees. “Scott’s just very — he’s always under control. I’ve never, ever seen him get mad. It’s just not his personality.”
Fundraising, the weakness that led Walker to cut short his 2006 gubernatorial bid, has in the intervening years become one of his key strengths. Unlike most first-time presidential contenders, he has already proven that he can haul in huge amounts of money from a national network of well-heeled donors: Astutely recognizing that normal contribution limits wouldn’t apply to his recall campaign, he raised an extraordinary $37 million in 2012. And in the last six months of 2013, Walker added more than $5 million to his war chest for this year’s gubernatorial reelection, half of it from contributors outside of Wisconsin. “The unions overreached in response to Act 10, and turned Walker into a national conservative leader,” Batzel says. “And along with that national status came lots and lots of fundraising money from out of state — and that really lays the groundwork for a presidential run.”
How far will Walker go? Walker says his mentor Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who blazed the trail for him by eliminating collective bargaining for Hoosier State employees, taught him never to grow complacent in his successes. Walker’s eldest son, Matt, 19, says his father is always looking for his next challenge. “Here in Wisconsin, he’s tried to get a lot of policies through, and a lot of work done, a lot of things reformed,” Matt says. “I think that’s important for people to know. He’s done a lot. And he’s looking to do more.”
Wisconsin Democrats who know Walker are less circumspect. “He’s hell-bent on running for president of the United States,” Tim Cullen says. Mike Tate, the Democratic Party chairman, agrees, and he warns Walker’s future opponents not to underestimate the governor with the agreeable manner. “I think he is a master chess player,” Tate says. “There are people in my own party who go around saying that this guy’s not very bright, or that he fell backward into power. They are completely wrong.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the district Gwen Moore represents in the U.S. House of Representatives.