If Trump Collapses, Will Scott Walker Get a Comeback Chance?
It seems like a million years ago that the political world was convinced that the most formidable Republican in all the land was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He was the ultimate mainstream Tea Party "reformer" of the Obama era, slashing taxes and regulations and defeating his state's Democratic machine up and down the ballot. He was what I called the Great White-Bread Hope, a nice young conservative Christian Midwestern governor with appeal across all factions of the Republican Party. For many months he led in the early polling, and political pundits considered him to be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2016.
Walker first vaulted to political superstardom back in 2012, when he faced a recall election during his first two years as governor and managed to survive. Why this was considered to be a sign of his tactical genius was always a mystery, since facing a recall in the first place would normally suggest that an elected official has done something wrong. But that made Walker's name as a politician destined for greatness. As the New Republic swooned back in 2014:
Scott Walker, the battle-hardened governor of Wisconsin, is the candidate that the factional candidates should fear. Not only does he seem poised to run — he released a book last week — but he possesses the tools and positions necessary to unite the traditional Republican coalition and marginalize its discontents.
The bloom began to come off the rose just a little when Walker was hit with corruption scandals that dented his "reformer" image, including charges that he illegally colluded with some big-money national conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. Three of Walker's close aides were indicted for felony embezzlement, and charges were brought against a major campaign donor along with one of his appointees. It was a mess that had the Walker boosters at the Wall Street Journal editorial page screeching about suppression of free speech and warning him that he'd better not settle the case or he'd risk losing his luster as a right-wing hero. (He settled it and they forgave him.)
Walker was a gaffe machine, churning out memorable lines such as his response to a question about what he would do about ISIS: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.” He once said that Ronald Reagan's greatest foreign policy achievement had been taking on the air traffic controller's union. Nonetheless, Walker was widely assumed to be the choice of the Koch brothers, the right-wing bogeymen of the Tea Party era. They had talked him up for years, and their PAC had backed him to the hilt in Wisconsin.
But Walker made an aggressive move in the spring of 2015 that apparently alienated the Kochs and many members of the Republican mainstream — he consulted with then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and adopted an extremely hard line on immigration. At the time, it seemed to be an appalling lurch rightward into Ann Coulter territory, but it turned out Walker was actually prescient about where the 2016 race, and the Republican Party, were heading.
Walker abruptly dropped out of the race in September 2015, surprising everyone by being the first casualty of the primaries. Then he shocked the political world with the revelation that he'd burned through vast sums of money during his short run. According to the Washington Post:
[M]oney went toward a payroll of more than 80, generous paychecks for top staffers, dozens of consultants and vendors who were paid tens of thousands of dollars, and elaborately staged campaign events. For a candidate who bragged on the campaign trail about finding deals at Kohl's and packing sack lunches to save money, the reports show that the campaign spent lavishly even as fundraising dollars began to disappear.
Recall that Walker had risen to fame as a fiscal conservative who drastically cut services and government jobs as governor. After that spectacular crash and burn, national office did not seem to be in his future.
Well, it looks as though he may be planning a comeback. The Washington Post reported that Walker is running for a third term as Wisconsin governor, and he seems to be dazzling Beltway journalists, just like in the good old days. He may have spent like a Saudi prince during his presidential campaign, but once again reporters are taken with his "regular Joe" ways, talking about how he doesn't have any money of his own and charmingly eats homemade ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch every day, which he charmingly tweets on his charmingly homespun Twitter feed.
Walker went back to Wisconsin after his fall from grace, where his approval rating was mired at 37 percent, and then traveled the state on a "listening tour." He's now in the mid-40s and believes he can win again, despite his unpopularity, because he "gets things done," unlike those losers in Washington. He's counting on his enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump and his close relationship with Vice President Mike Pence to put him over the top.
Well, so what is Walker's assessment of the president today?
His actions speak louder than words. A lot of people get hung up on his words or his tweets. If you look at the actions from where I sit in Wisconsin, this is a solid administration with a good Cabinet.
Walker hopes to put together the "Trump coalition" for the Wisconsin governor's race, which essentially means running up huge numbers in rural areas and suppressing the vote in the cities. He's raising tons of money already, with the Koch brothers back on the team. Walker is a Trump man through and through, which means he's happy to wallow in the swamp while pretending to be a populist. Republicans seem to like that.
But by affiliating himself so closely with President Trump in what has always been a purple state, which Trump won by the narrowest of margins, Walker is taking a huge risk. There are a number of Democrats already running, and the hope is that one of them will finally be able to take down Walker in the "big blue wave" that everyone prays will continue to swell into 2018. Clearly, Walker still has presidential hopes, and if Trump is not on the ballot in 2020 — which remains a possibility — it's unlikely that any Republican who backed him so fervently will be chosen to replace him.
Still, Walker has some things going for him. For obscure reasons, the media can't get enough of this guy and rich people just love to throw millions his way. He's still very young by political standards — he will only be 59 years old in 2024. If the Democrats are smart and focused, they'll be sure to put a stake in his zombie career so they don't have to face him later when he's regained full strength.