Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker officially announced this week that he is running for — wait for it — re-election as governor of Wisconsin.
It will be at least six months before he says anything definitive regarding that other office, the oval-shaped one in Washington, D.C.
And that’s to be expected.
Governors in both parties routinely run for re-election while keeping coy about the White House — much like Bill Clinton in 1990 and George W. Bush in 1998 and Rick Perry in 2010.
Of course there’s no question what’s on Walker’s mind, long term. His autobiography is titled Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge — generously expanding his current horizon.
Although just 46 years old, the Wisconsinite has avoided any public vow that he’ll serve out his four years if re-elected, and he’s wandered as far afield as Las Vegas to court the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s last run for the White House.
Walker moved up on a lot of people’s short lists after the media love affair with Chris Christie’s candidacy got nipped in the bud by Bridgegate. He has some of Christie’s potential to span the GOP’s internal divide, appealing to both the establishment (as Jeb Bush might) and the hard-core conservative base (as nearly all the other wannabes are trying to do).
But to rise into that role, Walker needs a boost from a robust re-election. And that could get tricky in a swing state like Wisconsin, where pride often goeth before a fall.
Walker’s state GOP stands at a pinnacle of success and influence at home and in Washington. As he reclaimed the governorship for his party in 2010, the GOP was also seizing control of the state Legislature. Republicans captured the majority of the seats in the state’s congressional delegation for the first time since 1996 and Ron Johnson became the first Wisconsin Republican in the U.S. Senate since 1992.
Since that watershed, Wisconsinite Reince Priebus has become chairman of the Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has been the party’s nominee for vice president.
But even this apparent golden age for the party has worrisome elements in the mix. Good times can expose rifts, and recently state Sen. Glenn Grothman, a hard-line conservative from West Bend, announced a challenge to 73-year-old Republican Tom Petri in the state’s 6th Congressional District.
Though a good party man, Petri is too mild-mannered a conservative for many in the Tea Party wing. Not long after Grothman got in, the 73-year-old got out, retiring after 35 years in office.
Something of that same insurgent spirit animated a recent 6th District meeting of activists that produced a resolution calling on state legislators to affirm the state’s rights — including its right to secede “under extreme circumstances.”
In headline shorthand, that became a “secession resolution,” but a party committee approved it for consideration by the full statewide GOP convention in May. That prompted lots of media inquiries and forced Walker to dissociate himself from the”secession resolution” forthwith.
It was the second time this month the governor, who has been a darling of much of the right, found himself at odds with some conservatives. The first came when his new 25-year-old campaign spokeswoman, Alleigh Marre, was outed as a supporter of Planned Parenthood and “a woman’s right to choose.” Walker’s allies in the anti-abortion movement erupted in protests. But so far the governor has stood by his aide.
No, Walker has not become some middle-of-the-road pol. To be sure, his re-election would be rooted in his high-profile showdown with public employee unions in 2011 and his renown as a social conservative. But to win a big re-election this fall, he needs to cut into his Democratic opponent’s margins among women and independents. That is a tall order against that opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, a woman with a business background.
That could be why Walker, ever “the conservative’s conservative,” has lately seemed attuned to sensibilities beyond his fan base. He has not shifted on policy but on tone, turning toward “big tent” tolerance. That will not make Walker the national favorite of his party’s hard-liners. But the competition to be the most implacable conservative in the 2016 GOP presidential field is already crowded to the point of pointlessness. The better running room for Walker is to be found somewhere between Jeb Bush and everyone else.