Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is “having a moment”: He is the “first ‘it’ candidate” of the 2016 race. He leads in the latest polls from Iowa and New Hampshire. And with being “it” comes increased media attention, so it was little surprise that earlier this week, the controversy over his latest budget received national coverage — more specifically, his staff’s attempts to rewrite the University of Wisconsin’s mission, including deleting the system’s goal of “the search for truth.” (Walker first tried to claim the changes were a “drafting error” and that university officials had not objected to the revisions before they became public. He then had to walk that back after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel searched for — and found! — the truth: Walker’s staff had requested them, and officials had objected.)
What was a little more surprising is how little attention was paid to less symbolic changes: Walker’s budget would cut funding to the University of Wisconsin system by 13 percent and force thousands of seniors out of the state’s popular SeniorCare prescription drug program and into the more expensive Medicare Part D. At the same time, Walker refuses to touch the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts he has given to wealthy Wisconsinites. (As for “fiscal responsibility,” the state is facing a $1.8 billion shortfall.) Walker’s strongly conservative principles have been clear from Day One, and his speeches in Iowa and elsewhere have made clear he plans to run on that kind of platform. Among candidates that the conservative base consider “real” conservatives (as opposed to Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, apostates on various key issues), Walker is the most likely to win the Republican nomination. And Democrats should hope he gets the nod.
The fundamentals suggest that the 2016 election will be extremely competitive. With economic growth picking up and President Obama’s approval rating trending back toward 50 percent, Democrats have a real chance now to capture a third term in the White House, historically a tough ask. But under all but the best conditions, Hillary Clinton will need every advantage she can get. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck show in their must-read 2012 postmortem “The Gamble,” polls suggest that Obama, not Mitt Romney, was the candidate less ideologically similar to the average voter, and Obama’s liberalism may have cost him several percentage points with independent voters. It must be noted that truly independent voters (not voters who say they are independent but almost always vote for one of the parties) make up a small percentage of the electorate. But in what the fundamentals suggest will be a very close race, running a more moderate Democrat in Clinton against a stridently more conservative Republican in Walker could provide that 1 percent difference.
Furthermore, a losing Walker-led ticket would provide the best proof for the GOP base that the “our guy would have won if he was more conservative” argument is a myth. As much as outsiders rolled their eyes at post-election claims that Romney and John McCain “weren’t conservative,” it’s certainly true that they were on the more moderate side of their respective primary fields. It’d be impossible to claim that with Walker (though some will no doubt try). Maybe, just maybe, that will be enough to stop or at least stall the Republican Party’s sprint to the right and finally bring the GOP back to the bargaining table.
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