The factions of the GOP are split and the Wisconsin governor is one of few candidates that can bring them together.
Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, has generated much buzz as a potential presidential candidate since he addressed the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on January 24. Walker has jumped to the front of a crowded Republican field and may be uniquely qualified to unite the various factions of the Republican Party.
There are a number of factions within the GOP, the two most obvious being the establishment and the Tea Party. In addition to these groups, there are also religious conservatives, foreign policy conservatives, and libertarians. Most of the potential Republican nominees are championed by only one or two of these groups. For example, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush fall into the establishment category. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Sarah Palin are prominent candidates from the Tea Party. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have the support of the religious wing of the GOP. Rand Paul is the obvious libertarian choice and no strong foreign policy candidates have yet emerged. Scott Walker is one of few candidates with the potential to bridge the divides between these groups.
Establishment Republicans like Scott Walker for his effectiveness and his experience as the governor of Wisconsin. Many conservatives favor a governor with proven leadership abilities after two terms of the meanderings of a former community organizer who was never tasked with a management position until he won the White House. The proven ability to get things done and forge majorities is a big plus for the next Republican nominee.
Additionally, establishment Republicans appreciate the fact that Walker is the best vetted candidate in the country. Likewise, after successfully managing three hotly contested campaigns (two gubernatorial campaigns and recall attempt), the potential for unforced errors is less likely than with untested candidates. Both areas have plagued many Tea Party candidates in the past and caused Republicans to lose races that should have been easily winnable.
Terrific Tea Partier
From the Tea Party point of view, Scott Walker is a fighter. He faced down Wisconsin’s public employee unions and won. He also cut taxes and moved the state budget from a deficit to a surplus. According to National Review, 95 percent of the state’s employers think that Wisconsin is on the right track, reflecting Walker’s pro-business and limited government policies. Walker’s new budget proposal also bans the use of Common Core assessment tests in Wisconsin’s public schools.
Walker’s views largely match those of Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, but, unlike Cruz, Walker has a record of accomplishment. Where Cruz has made a name for himself in making principled, but ultimately unsuccessful stands against Obamacare and the debt ceiling, Scott Walker can point to a record of accomplishments in Wisconsin.
Religious, But Not Extreme
Walker can also appeal to both religious and secular Republicans. He grew up as the son of Baptist pastor, notes the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. As a boy in Iowa he even started a “Jesus USA” club to do good deeds. In March 2014, he attracted the ire of the Freedom from Religion Foundation when he posted Philippians 4:13 on his official state Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Walker is pro-life and a defender of traditional marriage as well. In an October 2014 letter described in the Journal-Sentinel, Walker described how he signed a bill requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortions and hospital-admitting privileges for doctors at abortion clinics. Walker also cut off state funding for abortion providers. With respect to marriage, Walker supports traditional marriage, but a court decision establishing gay marriage in Wisconsin meant that the issue was not prominent in his reelection campaign. As the governor of a blue state, Walker is seen as more mainstream in his faith than Huckabee and Santorum by secular Republicans.
As governor, Walker also had support from libertarians. Walker’s limited government policies and challenges to public unions drew the endorsement of the national Libertarian Party in 2012. When foreign policy becomes an issue in a national campaign, support from libertarians might become more problematic, especially if the pacifist Rand Paul runs.
Aggressive on Foreign Policy
On foreign policy, Walker has begun to stake out a claim that is decidedly not pacifist. He recently told ABC News,
I think aggressively, we need to take the fight to ISIS and any other radical Islamic terrorist in and around the world, because it’s not a matter of when they attempt an attack on American soil, or not if I should say, it’s when, and we need leadership that says clearly, not only amongst the United States but amongst our allies, that we’re willing to take appropriate action.
Walker went on to say,
We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately, we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that’s what it takes.” He continued, “I don’t think that’s an immediate plan. [But] I wouldn’t rule anything out.
Walker’s sharp comments come after months of executions by ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. Polling shows that voters are sharply critical of President Obama’s tepid response to Islamic terror, but are not necessarily ready to commit U.S. ground forces to the fight in Syria.
On immigration reform, Walker opposes an amnesty, but does see the need for immigration reform and securing the border. He told ABC News,
We need to enforce the laws in the United States, and we need to find a way for people to have a legitimate legal immigration system in this country, and that does not mean amnesty.
So far, Walker has been vague about his position on immigration, but at various times has voiced opposition to the idea of deporting all illegal aliens and support for a pathway to legalization. With some conservatives decrying any suggestion of reform as “amnesty,” the issue of immigration is likely to be the most difficult for Walker to negotiate in the Republican primaries.
Other Possible “Uniters”
Scott Walker is not the only candidate with the potential to unite the GOP. Several other candidates might possibly bring the establishment and Tea Party, the two largest factions, together, but each has their own weakness. Marco Rubio has broad support, but as a one-term senator has little leadership experience. Rick Perry is a successful governor of Texas, but is under indictment for abuse of official capacity and must overcome his poor performance from 2012. Bobby Jindal is the two-term governor of Louisiana, but faces questions of effectiveness and experience at the national level.
There are several potential problems that might affect a Walker campaign. A simmering investigation in Wisconsin has searched for illegal coordination between conservative groups and Walker’s gubernatorial campaign. A recent Washington Post column hinted at how Democrats might respond to a Walker candidacy. Points of attack include Walker’s cuts to the University of Wisconsin and the state’s Seniorcare prescription drug program. Walker’s response to a projected budget shortfall was a round of spending cuts. Additionally, Walker is one of the few politicians at the national level without a college degree.
Walker’s largest obstacle at this point is coming to terms with immigration reform. While a small, vocal minority in the GOP opposes any change to immigration laws, a large majority of Americans want the system fixed. According to a Beyond the Beltway poll from December, 48 percent, a plurality, favor “a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers if they undergo a background check, pay taxes, and learn English.” This is one area where Republicans are out of step with the rest of the country.
Veering right on immigration in the GOP primary may prove fatal in the general election. Some observers believe that Mitt Romney’s fate was sealed in 2012 by his comments in the primary about “self-deportation.” Romney ended up losing the Hispanic vote by 44 percent according to CNN, a worse performance than any Republican candidate since Bob Dole.
So early into the 2016 race, anything can happen. At this point, Walker is not even a declared candidate yet. Nevertheless, he is well positioned to bring Republicans together, an important first step taking back the White House.