In the six months since Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the pundits have largely ignored one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. The people considered to be the obvious leading candidates have dominated the conversation about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. All of them have potentially large constituencies within the party and would be formidable contenders. Nor should the potential of Ted Cruz be dismissed. There is also a case to be made that 2012 holdover Rick Santorum is being underestimated just as he was last time. But why have we forgotten about Scott Walker?
The Wisconsin governor’s appearance at an important Republican fundraiser in Iowa last night got him back on the radar of pundits, and rightly so. It’s not just because Walker teased Republicans with his repeated mentions of being raised in the first caucus state and his close ties to it, though that sort of rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that seems like a prelude to a presidential campaign pitch. The point about Walker dipping his toe into the Hawkeye State’s early politicking that potential presidential rivals are also engaging in is that he is not just another Republican governor. Though he got lost in the focus on Romney’s defeat and the dramatic rivalry in the Senate that is emerging between Rubio, Paul and Cruz on national issues like immigration, Walker still has a cult following among conservatives that stands him in good stead as GOP senators duke it out on divisive issues and Christie concentrates on winning re-election in a manner that continues to alienate the Republican grass roots.
It was just a year ago that Walker was actually the center of the Republican universe as he won a smashing victory in the recall election that liberals forced on Wisconsin. Though Rubio, Paul, Cruz and others are all vying for the affection of Tea Party voters, it was Walker who was on the cutting edge of the movement after he took office after the 2010 election and actually began to put its ideas to work. By challenging the public worker unions, he became the focus of an unprecedented attack by the left. Liberals who claim congressional Republicans are obstructing President Obama’s agenda cheered when the Democratic minority in the Wisconsin legislature used illegal tactics to try to stop it from meeting or voting. Union thugs tried to intimidate Republicans in massive demonstrations in Madison. But Walker, who went farther than other reform-minded governors that year, stood his ground and not only won those crucial legislative battles but actually gained a bigger majority when he was forced to face the voters more than two years earlier than scheduled in the recall election. Moreover, he can now boast that the $3.6 billion deficit he inherited has been transformed into a surplus.
The drama unfolding in Washington on immigration, the budget and the investigation of the various Obama administration scandals has diverted many of those thinking about 2016 from the idea that the strength of the GOP isn’t in the Senate or the House but out in the country with Republican governors. Walker hasn’t just talked about pushing back against the power of the government; he’s done something about it in a way that no individual senator can. He’s also done it in a manner that is far more comprehensive than even Christie’s impressive wins in New Jersey and he’s done it in a state that generally votes for Democrats in presidential elections.
There are steep obstacles to a Walker presidential run.
One is the fact that it is doubtful that Walker and Ryan would run against each other. If Ryan were to demonstrate serious interest in 2016—something that is by no means certain but which would be considered natural as the 2012 vice presidential nominee—that might edge Walker out of the race right there.
Another is the fact that Walker must, as Christie is doing this year, win re-election as governor before even thinking seriously about 2016. Unlike Christie, who has swung to the center in the last year and whose photo ops (including another one today) with President Obama have helped him in New Jersey (though hurt him with Republicans elsewhere), Walker hasn’t trimmed his sails. Democrats, who understand they overreached and alienated many voters who didn’t necessarily agree with Walker’s policies but thought the recall was wrong, will view Walker as one of their top targets in 2014. Though he will go into that race a favorite, he won’t have an easy time of it and will be pressed about whether he will serve out his second term.
Last, as long as events in Washington dominate the headlines, it’s hard for a politician who goes to work in Madison, Wisconsin to get attention. Walker won’t make it onto the radar of the national press unless and until he actually starts running for president.
But anyone who has heard the way Republicans react whenever Walker’s name is mentioned or he appears know that there is no figure in the party that has a tighter grip on the affections of its grass roots. While the big guns blaze away at each other on the cable news stations, it’s important to remember that if Walker runs, he could be a real factor in 2016 and not just in Iowa.