Last year, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker snapped the political world to attention by becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election.
Since then, the Republican has governed his state to a budget surplus, ushered in tax cuts and helped foster an economy that the Federal Reserve Bank says is one of the five fastest growing in the country. He also delivered a substantive, well-received speech at the annual 10,000-strong Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
His record ordinarily would have conservatives dreaming of a 2016 White House bid, but two hurdles stand between Mr. Walker and a presidential nomination run.
His budget-cutting in Madison and the taming of the state’s public-sector employees unions have put a lot of noses out of joint. Yet he must attract independents and some Democrats to win re-election in November 2014 in order to be viable for the presidential nomination. Even if he wins, he has told friends, he won’t run in 2016 if fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, decides he wants a presidential shot.
Outsiders understand there likely isn’t room for two Wisconsinites in 2016.
“It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Wisconsin’s two Republican stars — the governor and the congressman — both jump into the presidential nomination race,” said Rick Wiley, former Republican National Committee political director and former Wisconsin GOP executive director.
Mr. Walker and Mr. Ryan are close, talk to each other often and mutually agree that there is no way both will jump for the nomination simultaneously.
The good news for Walker supporters, according to some Wisconsin Republicans who know him well, is that Mr. Ryan could sit tight in Congress with an eye on eventually succeeding Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, as House speaker.
Some Republicans who hunger for a youth-appeal candidate who has earned his battlefield stripes say that, at 45, Mr. Walker would make an intriguing presidential ticket-topper.
Surviving a recall
On June 5, 2012, Mr. Walker captured the political world’s attention by surviving a recall election designed to punish him for his efforts to force concessions out of labor unions. To do that, he turned a poll deficit into a 53 percent to 46 percent win over Milwaukee’s mayor, Democrat Tom Barrett.
It impressed fellow Republicans, tea party activists and independents to see Mr. Walker smash an ouster drive initiated by the state’s powerful government employees unions and backed by Democrats outside the state.
Before becoming governor, the Colorado Springs Baptist minister’s son and college dropout twice won election as Milwaukee County executive. His campaign highlighted his record as a successful budget-slashing tax-cutter who gave back half his salary to taxpayers and encouraged government employees to give back some of their benefits to avoid draconian cuts in government services.
All that would make him a 2016 Republican candidate with strong managerial-executive experience in public office, something polls show voters value.
As governor, he has tried to practice the thrift he preaches.
The budget he signed this year, for example, includes a rejection of the Medicaid expansion offered under President Obama’s health care law, a $650 million income tax cut, a two-year freeze on university tuition, a limit of 1 percent per year on increases in home property taxes and an expansion of private-school vouchers.
Mr. Walker’s fiscal conservatism has produced improvements but no miracles.
While the national unemployment rate fell to 7.4 percent in July, Wisconsin’s was down by four-tenths more, to 6.8 percent (a preliminary estimate) from the 7.7 percent that prevailed when Mr. Walker took office in January 2011, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Wisconsin now ranks 20th overall in unemployment.
Among the best states for business, Wisconsin ranks as 17th, up three places from last year, according to ChiefExecutive.com. Faring a bit worse in a CNBC rating, Wisconsin ranks 22nd best for business this year, up two places from last year.
That is not as good as the business rankings of other Midwestern states such as Iowa (13) or Indiana (18), but better than Ohio’s 28th, Michigan’s 29th or Illinois’ 44th.
Although Wisconsin rose to 33 among the 50 states in job creation last year, it continued to lag behind the national rate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this year. Under Mr. Walker, the state gained 62,082 private-sector jobs during his first two years in office.
No Wisconsin Republican interviewed for this article predicted that Mr. Walker would fulfill his 2010 campaign promise of 250,000 more private-sector jobs by the end of his four-year term. But most did claim that the instability and uncertainties for business investment created by the battles with unions that led to recall elections for four GOP state senators and for Mr. Walker made it more difficult to fulfill that job-creation goal.
His immediate problem is that polling shows his favorable rating with voters at less than 50 percent and just 2 percentage points above his unfavorable rating.
While others in his party who are eyeing 2016 have been making the rounds of early presidential primary states, usually to help raise money for Republicans in those states, Mr. Walker has carefully cultivated a homebody image.
Friends say he is acutely aware that every time he leaves the state, the Democrats say, “There he goes again.”
They also say that if he fails to win re-election as governor, he will all but kill his chances to be a serious national contender in 2016. Even if he is re-elected, he has told friend he will stand down if Mr. Ryan runs for the GOP nomination.
While some politicians are good at winning elections but can’t seem to manage a two-car funeral, managerial ability is a big Walker strength. Some Republican campaign operatives think most voters prefer a presidential nominee who has demonstrated executive ability, as evidenced by the preponderance of governors or former governors who win their party’s nomination — John McCain, John F. Kerry and Barack Obama notwithstanding. Mr. Walker does have that — executive of Milwaukee County is considered a big job in the state.
Unlike New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and other 2016 maybes, Mr. Walker has stayed home and stayed quiet.
Managerial skill doesn’t necessarily trump public impression. The concern is that some Democrats and independents whose votes he will need next year may not cotton to the idea that he will use a second term as strategic positioning to become top dog in the American political kennel.
As for Mr. Ryan, friends say he fully grasps the implications of history and probability tables. Both show that only one sitting U.S. House member, James A. Garfield, has ever won the presidency. That was in 1880, and the Ohio legislature had elected him to the Senate when he ran for president.
Even if Mr. Walker risked running statewide and was now a sitting senator, the odds wouldn’t improve much: Only three sitting senators have been elected president: Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy and Mr. Obama.
It may be some consolation that, for similar reasons, the playing field also may tilt against Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul, the two other top conservatives considered first-tier potentials for 2016.
Fellow Republicans are betting Mr. Ryan fully understands that to win the chance to govern the nation, it’s better to have governed a state than to have sponsored a bill.
What should delight Mr. Walker, meanwhile, is that in the course of the 57 presidential elections held so far, 42 governors or former governors have won their party’s nomination for president — and 25 of them made it to the Oval Office.
But that also should delight Mr. Christie, Mr. Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others.