As the MSNBC morning-show host needled Scott Walker on his future plans, the Wisconsin governor finally confessed that he did have his eye on a higher office: “I’d love to be president, though — I’ll say it right here and live — of Harley-Davidson Motor Company.”
Nearly two years later, Walker hasn’t formally announced whether he will run for the White House, but he is still talking about his Harley.
Walker, who owns a 2003 Road King, picked up his motorcycle hobby more than a decade ago while working as the Milwaukee County executive, ahead of an eventual run for governor in Harley-Davidson’s home state. Riding became a way for Walker to connect with veterans, rural voters and bikers who love the freedom of a long ride and loathe states that mandate helmets — although Walker himself wears one.
In the crowded field of potential Republican nominees, Walker has tried to brand himself as the plain-speaking, Miller-drinking, cheap-clothes-wearing option who understands the struggles of the middle class. Riding a Harley is a major part of that image. He already has pledged to ride around the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he has a ride planned for this weekend in Iowa.
At a reception in Des Moines last month, his staff set up a photo booth with a Harley parked in front of posters featuring this Walkerism: “State solutions. Not Washington solutions.”
Walker — the kind of guy who wore suits to class in college — does not look like Hollywood’s biker prototype. During Harley’s 110th anniversary in 2013, Walker sported jeans and a bright-orange T-shirt under a black leather vest covered in commemorative pins, neatly arranged in rows. When he took the stage to speak, he left on his fingerless black leather gloves.
“Freedom — endowed by our creator, defined by our Constitution, but defended each and every day by the men and women who proudly wear the uniform of these United States,” Walker said that day, according to a montage video that his staff composed, set to the song “Against the Wind.” (Walker continues to use that same line at the beginning of nearly every stump speech.)
Embracing Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson is common for Wisconsin politicians, of course: Former governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican who led the state from 1987 to 2001, was known for campaigning on the back of a Harley and leading a “governor’s ride” across the state each year.
It’s like Ronald Reagan atop a horse. Or President Obama shooting baskets.
But there are also potential risks to embracing the motorcycle theme: Most bikers value authenticity and can recognize fakes who are trying too hard to pander. Even if a politician wins them over, it’s a small voting bloc that is not going to change the outcome of an election.
And not all bikers are good for a politician to be associated with — rough-talking, hard-looking guys who pride themselves on having the loudest motorcycles on the road. There’s also the inevitable association with biker gangs, such as the groups that brawled in Waco, Tex., last month, killing nine people.
Tony Macrito, a spokesman for Harley-Davidson, said in a statement that Walker “is passionate about our brand like the millions of other loyal Harley-Davidson customers around the world. Identifying with the brand is about more than just owning and riding a motorcycle. It’s a lifestyle committed to personal freedom that our customers live and experience in their own meaningful ways.”
Walker says he first got on a hog in 2003 after the county executive had been invited to help lead a parade of thousands of motorcycles in honor of Harley’s centennial. He took a five-day class at a dealership and then practiced in the parking lot of the Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball stadium.
Having survived that, Walker began to organize multi-day “executive rides” across the state and into neighboring states to promote tourism in his county — and, as Democrats quickly alleged, to boost his name recognition ahead of an eventual run for governor. During the 2007 ride, Walker chronicled his experiences on a blog, with a heavy focus on the media attention he received.
Each year, Democrats questioned why Walker used county funds to pay for these trips. Walker tried running for governor in 2006 but couldn’t raise enough money; he jumped in again in 2009.
For the executive ride that year, Walker secured a corporate sponsor, AirTran, which had just finished jockeying for space in the Milwaukee airport. The airline chipped in $2,800 to cover gas, hotels, food and other expenses. At the time, Walker had frozen all unnecessary travel for county employees. That sponsorship prompted even more criticism and questions from Democrats.
That 2009 ride was also the first time that Walker rode his own motorcycle instead of renting one. In 2008, a friend connected him with a 2003 Road King that was for sale. Walker discussed the purchase with his wife, Tonette Walker, who approved. By the time Walker got back to his friend, the bike was gone.
“I was sick,” Walker said, “but said if it was God’s will, I would find another bike.”
It turned out that Tonette was the buyer — and she presented the Road King to him at a surprise party with a few hundred friends. The two posed for a photo on the bike, him with a wide smile her throwing her head back and laughing.
Bill Hayes, who has written several books on the history of biker culture, said that most bikers are peaceful with a strong sense of community and, often, more conservative or libertarian values. Slowly, they have become a colorful lobbying force in state legislatures, fighting helmet mandates and police checkpoints, but Hayes said that few politicians have tried connecting directly with them.
“The bikers have a very strong activist fashion to them — they’re a group that should be reached out to much more,” said Hayes, 65, who owns a martial arts studio in California.
Hayes adds that Walker tops his list of GOP favorites, but not because he drives a Harley — he likes that Walker weakened public-sector unions.
Wisconsin requires helmets only for riders age 17 and younger, one of 31 states that do not mandate helmet use for everyone. But Walker says he always wears one, writing in an e-mail to The Washington Post: “The overwhelming majority of serious accidents on a motorcycle come from the lack of a helmet and alcohol.”
Walker’s Harley ride this Saturday in Iowa is part of a political fundraiser for Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who drew national attention last year when she ran campaign ads saying that she castrated hogs growing up on a farm and that she isn’t afraid to “make ’em squeal” in Washington. Walker’s political organization recently hired Ernst’s former strategist, David Polyansky.
At least seven presidential candidates or likely candidates are expected to attend the Ernst “Roast and Ride,” but it’s unclear how many will ride. Campaigns are quietly being advised not to put a politician on a bike if he or she doesn’t know how to safely operate it. Ernst said she offered to let Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ride on the back of her hog.
Walker was one the of the first to RSVP to the event via Twitter, including a photo of him and his family wearing Harley gear: “I’ll bring my 2003 Harley Davidson Road King!”
But it turns out that transporting a chopper isn’t an easy task, especially with security and a packed travel schedule. Instead, Walker has decided to rent a Harley once he gets to Iowa.