What a Top Wisconsin Democrat Learned From Scott Walker

And his warning to the rest of the GOP’s 2016 field.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and possible Republican presidential candidate speaks during the Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at the Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center on June 2, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. Many of the leading Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to speak during the event.
National Journal
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Alex Roarty
June 10, 2015, 4 p.m.

MIL­WAU­KEE — Few state party chairs have ever had a ten­ure like Mike Tate. The man who led Wis­con­sin Demo­crats for the past six years watched his party lose to Scott Walk­er in three elec­tions, in­clud­ing a re­call of their own mak­ing. He watched a lib­er­al icon, then-Sen. Russ Fein­gold, lose to a tea-party-backed Re­pub­lic­an, Ron John­son. And most con­sequen­tially of all, he watched the Walk­er-led GOP break the tra­di­tion­al back­bone of the Demo­crat­ic Party — uni­ons — in a set of once-un­think­able le­gis­lat­ive ac­tions.

There have been suc­cesses dur­ing the past years, too, as Tate poin­ted out dur­ing his farewell ad­dress to the party on Fri­day. But few Demo­crats know bet­ter about the deep set­backs the party has suffered in the states since Pres­id­ent Obama took of­fice. For all the le­gis­lat­ive suc­cess the party has en­joyed at the fed­er­al level, Re­pub­lic­ans have had ma­jor policy vic­tor­ies of their own in state­houses across Amer­ica. And many times, their suc­cess was en­abled by the pub­lic’s an­ti­pathy to­ward Obama’s and the Demo­crats’ na­tion­al agenda.

The 36-year-old sat down with Na­tion­al Journ­al to talk about his years as party chair­man a day be­fore he of­fi­cially ended his chair­man­ship, which began in 2010 when he was just 30. What fol­lows is an ed­ited tran­script of that con­ver­sa­tion, in which Tate dis­cussed wheth­er race played a role in the back­lash to Obama, how uni­ons can re­gain their strength, and why Demo­crats would be fools to un­der­es­tim­ate Scott Walk­er.

(RE­LATED: He Shall Not Be Moved)

NJ: You’ve been chair­man for all of Scott Walk­er’s time as gov­ernor. What’s it been like?

Tate: It’s been a wild ride. It’s prob­ably some of the most his­tor­ic times Wis­con­sin has ever seen. I take the long view. Ob­vi­ously, there’s been some tough losses. But if you told people six years ago that Tammy Bald­win would be in the United States Sen­ate, they wouldn’t have be­lieved it. I’m proud of the role we played in help­ing reelect the pres­id­ent; I think that’s a really key thing. Es­pe­cially if you real­ize that came just a few months after we lost that re­call elec­tion to Scott Walk­er.

But clearly we’ve had some tough de­feats.

What’s it been like in a state like Wis­con­sin?

Ob­vi­ously we’ve seen this, and I think it’s al­ways easy to say this in the mo­ment, but I don’t know that there’s ever been a more vit­ri­ol­ic re­ac­tion to a sit­ting pres­id­ent. Ob­vi­ously, you go back to Pres­id­ent Clin­ton, and you know, there was all this, ‘Oh, the Re­pub­lic­ans hate him’ and everything else. And with Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, ‘Oh, the Demo­crats hate him,’ and there’s all this an­ti­pathy and everything else.

I just feel like this is a dif­fer­ent level. And maybe his­tory will render a dif­fer­ent judg­ment on that, but I think that we’ve really seen this sort of re­ac­tion­ary push­back to the pres­id­ent. And look, on some level, it’s ab­so­lutely ra­cially mo­tiv­ated. Without ques­tion. But I think it is too short­sighted for that to be the only an­swer, the easy an­swer.

(RE­LATED: Trouble Ahead, Trouble Be­hind for GOP’s 2016 Gov­ernors)

Is it as simple as ra­cism on the part of some people who op­pose the pres­id­ent?

Let me be really clear: I don’t think there is any­one in Amer­ica that would or should dis­agree that ra­cial ten­sion plays a role in the an­ti­pathy we see to­ward the pres­id­ent. But I think that’s al­most too easy an an­swer. I really do.

I re­mem­ber back to ‘09 when he got sworn in. I knew people, there were stor­ies about this at the time, people who were Re­pub­lic­ans at that time, people who voted for John Mc­Cain, who felt a sense of pride, a sense of ac­com­plish­ment, that, ‘Hey, you know what, this may not be my guy or my party, but we made his­tory here, this is a step for­ward for this coun­try.’ A lot of those people have gone on to be very vit­ri­ol­ic to­ward the pres­id­ent, and I don’t think it’s be­cause of his skin col­or.

The chan­ging demo­graph­ics of this coun­try have a lot to do with it. There’s some­time in the very near fu­ture, where we’re go­ing to a ma­jor­ity minor­ity coun­try. As much you could read ra­cial ten­sion in there, I think it’s more people are al­ways afraid of change.

How did Scott Walk­er keep win­ning in Wis­con­sin?

I’ll pre­face this by say­ing that there are Re­pub­lic­ans who I just dis­agree with, but who I think are good people, pat­ri­ots, and get up every day and do what they think is the right thing. I think Paul Ry­an has a strong mor­al com­pass. It may point in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion as mine, but I be­lieve he gets up every day and does what he thinks is best.

(RE­LATED: Scott Walk­er Digs in on How His Ex­per­i­ence With Uni­ons Shows He Won’t ‘Back Down’ to IS­IS)

I think Scott Walk­er has no mor­al cen­ter. I think he has no mor­al com­pass. And one of the reas­ons that has al­lowed Walk­er to suc­ceed is his abil­ity to let it blow in the wind. This is a guy who is about to sign a 20-week abor­tion ban, who ran an ad in the gov­ernor’s race “¦ who made it seem like he’s a pro-choice gov­ernor. It’s the au­da­city he has.

I do think, as much as people hate to hear this, for a guy who has thrived on be­ing un­der­es­tim­ated his whole ca­reer, he has some real tal­ent.

Could he win the pres­id­ency?

I don’t think he has the caliber or the qual­i­fic­a­tion or the ca­pa­city to be a good pres­id­ent of the United States. Do I think he can be the nom­in­ee, and he can mount a ser­i­ous and cred­ible cam­paign? Ab­so­lutely.

What would you tell the Clin­ton cam­paign if they asked for your ad­vice about Walk­er?

Don’t take this guy lightly. He’s ex­tremely ef­fect­ive. This is a guy who is able to walk the walk of a guy who says, ‘Ahh geez, shucks, I just bought this sweat­er for $1 at Kohl’s,’ but is able to go in­to the most far right or­gan­iz­a­tions and com­mu­nic­ate with them that he’s their guy. I think Scott Walk­er on the tick­et would be a mo­tiv­at­or for the Re­pub­lic­an base in a way Mitt Rom­ney wasn’t, and a way John Mc­Cain wasn’t.

With that said, I think Hil­lary still wins.

What about the emails?

I don’t think [av­er­age] people care at all where Hil­lary Clin­ton kept her email. And I don’t think those people care at all where money came from for the Clin­ton Glob­al Ini­ti­at­ive, which by the way, has been one of the most im­port­ant driv­ing forces of hu­man­ity around the world in the last cen­tury.

I get that it’s what we talk about at this point in the game. And I think it’s fair game. But I think the fact that these is­sues are be­ing lit­ig­ated now means a year from now we won’t be talk­ing about them at all.

How im­port­ant are labor uni­ons still to the Demo­crat­ic Party?

In­cred­ibly im­port­ant. Des­pite any­thing that’s happened and what any­one says, I ac­tu­ally think, I’ve al­ways be­lieved that or­gan­ized labor is the back­bone of the Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic Party.

How does labor re­gain its strength?

If you go through his­tory, there’s been peri­ods when labor and cap­it­al have been at odds with each oth­er. And there al­ways come these peri­ods of time when cap­it­al sort of gets a head up on labor. And what it takes is, it goes on for a peri­od of time and people be­come frus­trated and dis­sat­is­fied, and they work and they work, and one lead­er comes around and crys­tal­izes the move­ment, and we see for­ward pro­gress. That may be a long way of say­ing I don’t have spe­cif­ics to your ques­tion. But what I’m telling you I be­lieve is, des­pite shrink­ing num­bers, labor uni­ons are more im­port­ant today than they were 10 years ago. That we’re go­ing to see re­sur­gence in or­gan­ized labor.

But let me be very clear, and I’d say this to my friend in or­gan­ized labor: Their busi­ness mod­el needs to ad­apt and evolve.


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