He doesn’t have the fundraising prowess of Jeb Bush, the potential widespread appeal of Marco Rubio, or the presidential campaign experience of Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum. Yet Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is going to be a force to be reckoned with as the Republican primaries get underway.
Though he hasn’t formally declared, Walker is running strong in early polls. In fact, he’s leading all potential GOP rivals in a survey of Iowa voters released by The Des Moines Register on Sunday. And despite an obvious geographical disadvantage, Walker finished second in a straw poll of Southern Republicans released last month.
Walker is for real. He’s not Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, or any of the rivals to Mitt Romney that Republicans flirted with in 2012. Here are six reasons why Republicans and Democrats alike shouldn’t underestimate the Wisconsin governor.
He’s taken on powerful Democratic interests, and won
Walker has made powerful unions the public enemy number one of his administration. In 2011, he backed a law that not only cut back the healthcare and pension benefits of public-sector unions, but also their bargaining power.
Nearly four years later, he backed and signed a right-to-work law that hurts unions’ ability to collect dues from members. That’s two significant strikes against a powerful Democratic-leaning voter bloc.
The stance allowed opponents to paint him as an enemy of the working man – remember the protests that filled the state capitol in Wisconsin a few years ago? – but it also gave him a potent talking point. Walker will repeat that he made tough decisions with Wisconsin’s financial health in mind and took on special interests. New Jersey’s Chris Christie will say the same, but he has a bit more baggage, shall we say, than Walker.
He’s a survivor
Walker easily won his 2010 race for governor. Then things got interesting. After taking on the unions in 2011, he faced a recall election a year later and won that by a healthy seven-point margin. In 2014, Walker was reelected to a second term in office by more than five percentage points.
That’s essentially three gubernatorial elections in four years, the last two of which took place in the glare of the national media spotlight. Despite that kind of scrutiny, no disqualifying skeletons emerged from his closet.
Geography works in his favor, in two ways
Party loyalists salivate over the chance to turn blue states red, and vice versa, and Walker would give the Republicans at least an even chance of moving Wisconsin to their column, especially as Democrats continue to tighten their grip on formerly red Virginia in national elections.
Geography is Walker’s friend in another way. For Republicans especially, the toxicity of Washington, DC, is a tried-and-true talking point, and rivals such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Lindsay Graham, and others who have served in the Senate, can’t make as strong a case.
Walker does not have a college degree, a rarity for a presidential candidate. (And he never said he did, which would have been a disqualifying fib for a candidate – or any job applicant). Time will tell how much it matters. He’ll probably argue that two of the men on Mount Rushmore didn’t have degrees, either. Many believe the distinction will actually help him.
Time is on his side
Walker may not radiate youthful energy like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, but the motorcycle riding governor is a still relatively youthful 47 years old. (He’ll be a spry 49 on Election Day 2016).
So if the next presidential election is fought partially along generational lines, Walker could be able to claim the younger – and usually more successful – side as his own.
Gaffes haven’t hurt him – yet
When asked in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference how he would take on extremists such as the Islamic State, Walker replied, "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world."
It wasn’t the most artful thing a candidate has ever said, but it didn’t bury him, either.
While the comment probably won’t hurt him in the GOP primaries, Democrats’ success in recent elections with the "war on women" narrative should give his team concern. This is one gaffe that could stick.