WAUKESHA, Wis. — Scott Walker was just miles away from home, standing in front of a dozen probing cameras meant for someone else. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush — who, unlike Walker, is still a candidate for president — had brought the press corps to a Spanish-language school that had just launched an 88-student charter program. It was Walker’s program — “it’s about expanding education choices for every family in the state” — but he credited Bush for the inspiration, and Bush returned the favor.
“It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to take on entrenched interests,” Bush said. “This guy did.”
The compliment had the flavor of a eulogy. Two months earlier, Walker had joined the elite and unhappy club of governors who had lunged for the White House, missed and returned to their capitols with diminished clout. Club inductees include Mike Dukakis and Rick Perry. When Walker lost, the president of the AFL-CIO snarked that his nemesis was “still a disgrace, just no longer national.”
But something unexpected has happened in those two months. Although his days of lofty foreign policy speeches are gone, Walker is back to what propelled him to the national stage in the first place: street battle with Wisconsin’s Democrats. And he has reemerged on the state stage as powerful as ever.
Walker returned to Wisconsin as a sort of paradox: A weakened figure who could still defeat Democrats whenever he tried. In the past few weeks his Republican allies in the state legislature have steamrolled their opponents to allow more and looser money into elections, and to end a law that allowed prosecutors to investigate officeholders without convening a jury. And a signature conservative reform started today: drug testing for welfare recipients.
“They’re determined to ram things through very quickly,” said Peter Barca, the leader of the minority Democrats in Wisconsin’s state assembly. “Maybe they look at the polls and think they won’t be able to do all this after the next election. I think he was back from Iowa for 10 minutes and said, ‘Well, it’s time to do civil service reform.’ ”
Walker has also seized the pulpit that comes with being a state’s chief executive. He has celebrated new jobs in Kenosha and asked Kraft Heinz not to close a hot dog plant. In October, he found himself congratulating the Cow of the Year at the World Dairy Expo. Later, donning his Green Bay Packers jacket, he posed with a mascot from Megabus as the company unveiled “The Big Cheese” line from Milwaukee to Madison.
“Our state produces high-quality cheeses for consumers around the world,” said Walker, who had canceled a planned high-speed rail line between the cities. “There is no doubt that when people see this bus, they will know it’s from Wisconsin.”
This week, Walker is playing host as his former rivals for the GOP presidential nomination descend on Milwaukee for the latest debate, which will air Tuesday evening on Fox Business Network.
Walker’s task of reasserting himself has been made easier by a series of events that have made Democrats largely irrelevant. Losses in 2012 and 2014 on a Republican-drawn map put Democrats below the numbers they needed even to delay a vote by fleeing the state, as they did in 2011 when Walker was making his name nationally by ending collective bargaining for most public employees. In 2015, Democrats were unable to stop Republicans from passing right-to-work legislation and won a sort of reprieve only when the presidential election distracted Walker.
In Madison, which teemed with protesters during the 2011 and 2015 fights, the Democrats’ problem is stark. The state’s capitol is still visited every day at noon by the Solidarity Singers, aging liberals who rewrite patriotic songs with lyrics about Walker’s misdeeds and hold signs from the campaigns he won. Sitting in his office on Monday, Democratic State Sen. Jon Erpenbach reflected on how Republicans worked past midnight on Friday to win the key vote on campaign reform.
“It doubles the amount of money that legislators will be allowed to take in,” said Erpenbach, who watched moderate Republican colleagues voice complaints then vote for the final bills. “They are afraid of primaries. They’ve seen colleague after colleague defeated by conservatives in their primaries.”
Erpenbach, and many other Democrats, are braced for more — because there is no reason for Walker to trim his sails. “I can see him trying to kick people off of welfare, cut school funding,” said Erpenbach. “Gov. Walker is trying to privatize as much as he possibly can.”
Protests aside, none of Walker’s policy moves have hurt his political strength in Wisconsin. The 2016 campaign was the one decision that seemed to slacken his grip. Walker’s allies speculated that the campaign distracted him from the 2015 budget, which was noticeably slapdash. Walker’s campaign-trail rhetoric about fighting “even leaders of my party” for reform briefly rankled allies like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. But the campaign was over, and accordingly to allies like Milwaukee conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, Walker had basically compartmentalized that experience from the work of governing.
“It’s helpful to have a fully engaged conservative governor,” said Eric Bott, the state director of Americans for Prosperity. “If you look at what he did before he ran, Wisconsin’s become the 25th right-to-work state, it’s eliminated the prevailing wage, it’s expanded school choice, and it’s about to pass what could be model legislation from a free speech standpoint.”
Wisconsin’s role as a petri dish for conservative bills was what scared liberals about Walker in the first place. “He can go back to talking [American Legislative Exchange Council] bills off the shelf,” said Nick Rathod, executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive response to the conservative ALEC. “That spells another decade, potentially, of conservative control of the legislature, unless things start changing quickly. That makes it logical for Walker to run his agenda through.”
An unassuming Walker, a governor with power but no national ambition, is what Democrats worry about. “The spotlight was much greater when you had the national media looking at the governor as a presidential candidate,” admitted Barca, the Democratic minority leader.
The disinterest of the national media was palpable in Waukesha. When Bush and Walker finished a Q&A, the cameras detached from a riser and swarmed the former governor of Florida. Walker stood off to the side, talking to students, fielding an occasional question about whether he’d make an endorsement (“it’s great to have candidates in Wisconsin”) or whether he still thought governors made better presidential timber than senators (“we’ll see”). A group of kids sang a song about pride, and Walker said he didn’t miss the campaign trail at all.
“I love being here,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s great being governor.”
Then he left, a Ford Escalade bringing him down the road to a fundraiser for Vos.