These days, the GOP prospects for the 2016 presidential election seem to be divided into two tiers. The first collection of possible candidates are viable contenders for the Republican nomination, candidates like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and perhaps Jeb Bush. The second group of potential candidates is composed of politicians who would not win the nomination, but would certainly shape the debate of the primaries. This group has figures like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee. Such a split highlights an important issue: how can the Republican Party nominate a candidate that would both excite the conservative base and please the more moderate members of the party? A nominee like Chris Christie wouldn’t exactly thrill the Tea Party faction of the GOP, and a nominee like Ted Cruz would receive almost no enthusiasm from moderate Republicans. The purpose of this article is to suggest that a unifying nominee might come in the form of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. With a likely successful re-election campaign this year in a blue state, with a conservative record on spending cuts, and with a fairly open 2016 GOP primary field, Scott Walker may be seeing the political stars align in his favor.
To begin, Gov. Walker has enjoyed several successes in a blue state, the stuff of campaign trail talking points. In June 2012, Walker survived a recall election with 53% of the vote. That fall, President Barack Obama won Wisconsin with 52.83% of the vote. Additionally, according to a Marquette University Law School poll, Scott Walker’s approval rating is higher than that of the President in a state where only 24.1% of respondents approved of the Tea Party. For a fairly conservative governor in a fairly liberal state to have achieved these political conditions surely testifies to Walker’s skill, skill that he could demonstrate on the 2016 campaign trail.
As far as timing is concerned, Walker’s re-election bid could hardly be better. Sean Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote last October that “it’s historically been pretty difficult to unseat incumbent governors in Wisconsin.” Gov. Walker will also enjoy national media coverage of what looks like a probable re-election victory, much like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s win in 2013. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, all likely presidential candidates from the Senate, were also all elected in 2010 and 2012, which means that none of them will be running for re-election in 2014. This could mean that while Walker is in the news for being a Republican victor in a typically Democratic state, Cruz and Rubio and Paul might get less favorable coverage. By the end of 2014, Scott Walker could have the name recognition of a Ted Cruz, but not nearly as much political baggage.
But, timing aside, what can Walker offer to conservatives? Simple: Scott Walker can offer executive experience in deficit reduction. In fact, Scott Bauer reported that Wisconsin’s state budget surplus has now increased to almost $1 billion. In the Republican primaries, a record like this would be a definite advantage, because while Cruz and Paul and Rubio may have voted for deficit reduction measures, they’ve never actually implemented them from the executive branch of a state government. The part of the GOP that values fiscal conservatism the most could be a potential stronghold for Walker.
And to moderate Republicans, Scott Walker is palatable. Politico‘s Emily Schultheis wrote in November that “avoiding the divisive social issues leaves Walker to talk about what he knows best – the economic, fiscal and entitlement-related issues that he’s worked on in his state.” According to a recent PPP poll, 60% of Republicans see themselves as either moderate or somewhat conservative; Walker can appeal to these voters.
Perhaps most important is the potential for Scott Walker to unite an increasingly divided GOP. Nate Cohn of the New Republic argued the following:
“Walker has the irreproachable conservative credentials necessary to appease the Tea Party, and he speaks the language of the religious right. But he has the tone, temperament, and record of a capable and responsible establishment leader.”
There are, however, some potential landmines for a Walker candidacy. Even thought his record on deficit reduction is cause for excitement among Republicans, his lackluster record on job growth in Wisconsin (37th in the country) would be cause for concern among the general electorate.
Scott Walker has one last advantage. Many of his would-be rivals for the Republican nomination either come from Washington, D.C. or are currently out of office. Walker’s location, far from the center of power, means that he can play the “outsider” card on candidate like Ted Cruz. On the other hand, he can also be seen making decisions as the sitting governor of a state, something Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum would not be able to do.
In the end, Walker’s low poll numbers (4% in one survey) among potential GOP candidates make him look like a long-shot candidate. But between December and January, an NBC News/Marist poll showed that the percentage of undecided GOP voters jumped from 13% to 25%. The Republican primary field is wide open. And the stars may be aligned for Scott Walker.
Here’s a video of Gov. Walker on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”