Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is promising unity in his state following a big win in a contentious recall election this week, as national Republicans assess the impact that a charismatic, seemingly unflappable young governor – an instant star – could have on GOP party fortunes.
“He automatically became one of the most sought-after speakers after Tuesday," says Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a leading conservative activist and think tank in Washington. "He’s an incredibly valuable resource to the party, the Mitt Romney campaign, and to our future.”
Governor Walker – the first governor in US history to beat a recall campaign – is clearly an overnight sensation for the GOP, having pushed through hard-nosed reforms that eliminated the state’s $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or requiring massive layoffs. He campaigned on a platform of making tough decisions on how government is structured, including retooling the relationship between the state and public sector unions.
Besides eliminating collective bargaining rights for most public employees, he reduced take-home pay to cover pension contributions, and required higher health insurance premiums and co-pays – the kind of fiscal rejiggering the national party says is crucial to finally getting serious about ballooning deficits and resetting mismanaged spending priorities.
Mr. Cardenas says conservatives appreciate his success, because they see it emboldening executives in all branches of government – from town mayors to state leaders – to confront budget reform on similar terms.
“They’ll say 'if Scott Walker can do it, I can do it’ to bring fiscal sanity to these communities. The Scott Walker race just added five exclamation points to this trend,” Cardenas says.
No one but Walker knows the extent of his ambition outside Wisconsin. Since Tuesday’s victory, he says his priority is encouraging bipartisanship among the divided House and Senate in his state, including inviting everyone to a beer and brat summit this summer.
“The ball is in his court,” says Geoffrey Peterson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. “How far he decides he wants to move up in his party, either as vice president or run for a Senate seat, I think it’s certainly in the cards. He’ll certainly will get the support of the party"
Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has yet to announce a running mate, which makes it tempting to speculate on Walker’s chances of getting the nod.
That might be a misstep as this point in Walker’s career, considering he is just a year and a half into his first term as governor, says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Picking Walker would “undercut Romney’s main narrative about [President] Obama, which is he was too inexperienced and untested” to become president, he adds.
Instead, the wisest strategic move – if Walker is even considering a run for national office – is to remain Wisconsin’s governor for at least a second term. From Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, the surest step into the Oval Office is through the governor’s mansion and not necessarily a US Senate seat, Mr. Goldford says, primarily because of the skills required for both positions.
Voters “have tended to go with people with executive experience. The best thing to do for himself is try to be seen as a governor who gets things done and who can get reelected with high majorities,” Goldford says.
The danger of overhyping Walker so soon after his recall victory is that he could just as easily follow down the path of other Republican Party could-have-beens like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or former Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin. If Walker wants to remain politically relevant for the long-term, says Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., he needs to have opportunities to show voters outside Wisconsin that he can handle the national spotlight.
Republicans need to “see how Scott Walker deals with the prime time stage,” Ms. Greer says. “In many ways this election was about Wisconsin, but we will see if he is able to really stay on message during the national campaign in campaigning for Romney or the GOP.”
There remain potential pitfalls. The first is the ongoing “John Doe” investigation into Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County Executive. The probe involves current and former aides, six of whom are already charged with crimes including embezzling money from veterans groups and illegally campaigning on public time. The investigation has been ongoing since May 2010 and has yielded 15 felony charges; five people close to Walker, including his deputy chief of staff, are currently awaiting trial.
Walker is not yet charged with wrongdoing, although he has transferred money from his campaign into a legal defense fund.
“If it turns out he’s really connected to it, he may very well be a one-term governor” and his viability as a national player will end, says Peterson.