During the 2012 recall fight in Wisconsin, a group of protesters dressed as zombies disrupted Gov. Scott Walker’s speech at a ceremony for kids participating in the Special Olympics. Walker just ignored the protesters. Afterwards, talk radio host Charlie Sykes told Walker he should have “gone Chris Christie on them.” But Walker wanted to keep the focus on the Special Olympics athletes, saying “it was their day.”
The incident is revealing. Walker and Christie, the New Jersey governor, are friends, and they have both found a way to win in purple states that have not voted for a Republican president in a quarter-century. But they each did it in very different ways.
Christie is moderate in policy, but immoderate in temperament.
Walker is moderate in temperament, but immoderate in policy.
The question is: Which is a better model for the GOP nationally?
Right now, the GOP is split between two factions: grassroots tea party supporters who want an unapologetic conservative, like Sen. Ted Cruz, who will take the fight to the left, and those who want a candidate like Christie, who they believe can appeal to independent voters in the center and thus win the presidency.
Walker is the only potential 2016 candidate who appeals to both factions.
Walker is a tea party hero thanks to his courageous stand against the public-sector unions in Wisconsin. Cruz may have “faux filibustered” Obamacare, but Walker faced down 100,000 protesters outside the Capitol in Madison — and won. He not only passed his reforms despite unbelievable odds, he became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. He’s both a fighter and a winner — a compelling combination for the conservative base.
Moreover, Walker’s appeal to the right goes beyond collective bargaining. As governor, he passed a raft of other conservative reforms that went virtually unnoticed because of the collective-bargaining fight. He signed legislation enacting voter identification requirements, permitting the concealed carry of firearms, defunding Planned Parenthood, prohibiting any health exchange operating in Wisconsin from covering abortion, reducing taxes, expanding school choice and reforming entitlements. Walker is an across-the-board, unflinching, full-spectrum conservative.
But Walker also has a proven ability to win the votes of moderates and reform-minded independents. While Walker is often portrayed as a “divisive” figure, exit polls in the June 2012 gubernatorial recall election showed that about one in six Walker voters also planned to vote for Barack Obama in the November presidential election. And, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “those confounding Obama-Walker voters of 2012 . . . [are] still with us.” Two separate 2013 polls of Wisconsin voters, the paper reported, show that “11% approve of both politicians.”
This was not an aberration. Walker has long found a way to appeal to the center while governing as a conservative. In Milwaukee County, one of Wisconsin’s bluest areas, he won three elections in a row, with a larger percentage of the vote each time. In 2008, he won re-election with nearly 60 percent of the vote, while Obama won Milwaukee County in the presidential election with 67.5 percent — which meant that a significant number of people pulled the lever for both men.
What explains Walker’s surprising crossover appeal? He explained it to me this way: “There are independent, reform-minded voters in every state. In times of crisis, they want leadership. They don’t care if it is Republican leadership or Democratic leadership. If you step forward and offer a reform agenda that is hopeful and optimistic, they will give you a shot.”
Walker survived the 2012 recall by mobilizing his conservative base with his courageous, unflinching stand — and appealing to persuadable, reform-minded, results-oriented independents, who provided the critical margin of victory. That is precisely what Republicans need to do nationally if they want to win back the presidency in 2016.
Walker delivers everything Christie does it terms of appealing to the center — but without the ideological compromise. And he delivers everything Ted Cruz does in terms of taking the fight to the left — but without the losing.
So will he run? In the course of collaborating on our new book, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” I spent dozens of hours with Walker. In all those conversations, the one thing I never asked him about, and he never raised, was 2016. So I have absolutely no idea what he will ultimately decide. I do know that he loves being governor of Wisconsin — and no one has ever fought harder to keep that job. I also know that the GOP has many compelling potential standard-bearers, Christie included.
But none is better positioned to energize the conservative grassroots while winning the center than Scott Walker.