Scott Walker: Conservative views on social issues won't harm GOP's prospects

At a Monitor-sponsored breakfast, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said it would be a mistake for Republican candidates for the White House to change their 'fundamental, core principles.'

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks with reporters at the Monitor breakfast on Friday, November 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker isn’t going to light up the stage with a big personality, like, say, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

But don’t let that mild-mannered Upper Midwestern-ness fool you.

Governor Walker is showing all the tell-tale signs of a budding presidential candidate – the new book, the speeches and media appearances outside Wisconsin focused on his record, the obligatory assertions that he’s focused on winning reelection next year, not on 2016.

But if Republicans are determined to nominate a governor for president next time around – as many say they want – then Walker deserves a close look.

Like Governor Christie, he has muscled through a Republican fiscal and social agenda in a Democratic-leaning state. Last year, he became the first governor ever to survive a recall election, which was called over new limits he authorized on collective bargaining rights for state employees.

And he is adamant that the party’s conservative stands on social issues – foremost, gay marriage and abortion – won’t harm the GOP’s chances at retaking the White House.

Walker rattles off a list of states carried by President Obama last year that have Republican governors – Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“As governors we focus on the things that matter most to people, and those are economic and fiscal issues,” Walker told reporters Friday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “I am pro-life like most Republican governors are pro-life. I don’t apologize for that but I don’t focus on that, I don’t obsess with it.”

Persuadable, moderate, middle-of-the-road voters – the ones who decide elections – don’t have litmus tests for candidates, he says. And it would be a mistake for any candidate to change his “fundamental, core principles,” such as opposition to abortion. If anything, he says, bending one’s views will cost votes.

Not that Walker has completely ignored the issue as governor. In July, he signed legislation requiring a woman to have an ultrasound before having an abortion, a requirement that abortion-rights advocates view as obtrusive and unnecessary.

“I’ve found plenty of people have no problem voting for me even though they don’t share my belief on [abortion],” Walker says, “because they appreciate the fact that the things I focus in on are economic and fiscal issues in my state, and that is what they feel they hired me to do.”

Last March, the Republican National Committee put out an “autopsy” on the 2012 election, addressing in particular the party’s demographic challenges with women, youth, and minorities. That document – called the Growth and Opportunity Project – skirts social issues, while addressing issues of “process” that ended up placing outsized focus on social issues in the 20-plus debates held before and during the primaries.

“What happens with that many debates is you start trying to find very narrow issues that define minute differences, and those take a disproportionately larger part of the debate,” Walker says.

The party’s “bread and butter” issues – fiscal and economic policy – need to be in the forefront, he says. And that means having fewer debates.

“Of all the things the RNC has been talking about doing, [that] is probably one of the most significant for the future,” he says.

On the matter of improving the Republican “brand” nationally, which is at historic lows in opinion polls, Walker again points to the party’s economic message.

“We want to have a recovery, and we don’t want to leave anybody behind,” he says, when asked in particular about the GOP’s efforts to retake the Senate.

“We cannot be viewed as the party of ‘no,’ which in the states where we are successful, that is exactly what has happened. We are not the party of ‘no.’ We are optimistic, we are speaking in terms that are relevant, we are showing we have the courage to act on those convictions.”

As it happens, the large press corps assembled at the St. Regis Hotel kept coming back Friday to most Republicans’ conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage, which have alienated some voters from the Republican brand.

By the end of the hour, Walker even took a very mild-mannered slap at the press: “The media seems to be more obsessed with social issues than do average voters.”

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