Scott Walker's message in his soon-to-be-announced presidential bid is simple: I'm a conservative who has won and won (and won) in a blue state. I've talked the talk and walked the walk.
"We fought and we won," Walker says in the video his campaign released in advance of Monday night's formal announcement. "Without sacrificing our principles we won three elections in four years in a blue state."
That's a very powerful message for Republicans desperate to win the White House back. And, it's one that Walker has Democrats to thank for.
Remember that Walker's initial win in 2010 occasioned no great attention among national politicos. He was a little-known county executive who was known, primarily, for being the "brown bag" guy. No one expected to hear from him again, nationally speaking.
Then Walker made his move on public employee unions. Suddenly, he became enemy number one of the organized labor movement nationally and the Republican every Democrat in Wisconsin loved to hate. That emotion led to the push to recall Walker in a June 2012 election; there was a widespread belief in the anti-Walker crowd that it was a virtual guarantee that voters would get rid of the governor.
Except that didn't happen. In fact, Walker won by a larger margin over Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett in the 2012 recall than he did in the regularly scheduled 2010 election. In the wake of that loss -- and, in truth, in the months leading up to the vote -- there was considerable disagreement between labor/Wisconsin Democrats and national party strategists about whether the recall was a smart political move.
Following Walker's win, I wrote this:
There was considerable internal discussion and disagreement between Washington and Wisconsin Democrats (and organized labor) about whether to push for a recall election this summer or wait until 2014 for a chance to unseat Walker. (Washington Democrats broadly favored the latter option, Wisconsin Democrats and labor the former).
As the recall played out, two things became clear: 1) There were almost no one undecided in the race and 2) those few souls who were undecided tended to resist the recall effort on the grounds that Walker had just been elected in 2010.
The sentiment among those undecided voters, according to several Democrats closely monitoring the data, was that while they didn’t love Walker they thought he deserved a full term before passing final judgment on how he was performing.
That Democrats nominated Barrett — the same man who Walker had defeated in the 2010 general election — added to the sense among independents and undecided voters that this was primarily a partisan push to re-do a race in which they didn’t like the final result.
Looking back, it's clear that without the recall, there is no Scott Walker presidential announcement today. What the recall did was turn Walker into a conservative hero/martyr -- the symbol of everything base GOPers hate about unions and, more broadly, the Democratic party. He went from someone no one knew to someone every conservative talk radio host (and their massive audiences) viewed as the tip of the spear in the fight against the creep of misguided Democratic priorities. He became someone who had the phone numbers of every major conservative donor at his fingertips. He became what he is today: The political David who threw a pebble and slew the mighty liberal Goliath.
Former top Obama adviser David Axelrod agrees.
It's hard for me to imagine that if Democrats had never tried to recall Walker that he would be a) running for president in 2016 or b) solidly established as one of the three candidates regarded as most likely to be the nominee. Even if Walker had, as he did, won a second term as governor in Wisconsin in 2014, it's much more likely he'd be grouped in with fellow governors like John Kasich and Chris Christie rather than, as he is now, with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
The recall was a major -- and long-tailed -- strategic mistake by Democrats. It elevated Walker from a low-profile governor into a conservative superstar. If Walker winds up as the Republican nominee in 2016 -- and he has a real chance to be just that -- Democrats have only themselves to blame for his rise. They made Walker into the kind of politician who could beat Hillary Clinton next November.