It is too early in Scott Walker’s life to write an obituary for his political career, but his anemic campaign to win a third term as Wisconsin governor dims his prospects for another big gig.
Had he won the third term, he would have been in the conversation for the Republican Party national ticket in 2020, or at least a cabinet post should the GOP retain the presidency in 2020 or beyond.
Walker has already ruled out a cabinet post in the balance of President Trump’s first term, and wisely so. Our president, for whom loyalty is a one-way street, burns through his senior appointees like he fired apprentices on reality TV. One difference: on TV, Trump fired people face-to-face. Seasoned, respected appointees, including Trump loyalists, get no respect once in a White House job or on the way out his revolving door.
Who would want to take the garbage that our leader hands out, other than a supreme patriot who takes one for the country?
Agree with Walker or not, no one can say that he was not a gutsy leader. But, as with the recent campaign, he never telegraphed his big ideas. He launched his major moves after his election wins. By example, his notorious Act 10 that cut the legs from under the public employee unions came as a complete surprise in 2011, even to Republican insiders. Voters had no clue it was coming.
Similarly, his other signature thrusts – the Right to Work law and the massive subsidies to FoxConn – were never signaled in his subsequent campaigns.
I asked several dozen astute voters what stood out in Gov. Walker’s campaign this year, and none came up with an answer. They remembered the negative ads against Evers. Negatives had not been hallmark of previous Walker campaigns. They knew he was eternally for holding the line on taxes and tuition and for deregulation. That’s always been his game plan.
Health care was the big issue in 2018, and the governor played catch-up on matching Tony Evers in promising to cover pre-existing conditions. He and his staff came up with a policy concoction that defied political common sense. They put $250 million into a one-time shot into a re-insurance subsidy for health insurance carriers. It was supposed to dampen premium increases, but there is no evidence that it happened. Besides, how many voters understand the impact of reinsurance on premiums? Big money — zero impact.
There’s irony here. Walker understands health care economics, more than most governors, and he is aware of the cost saving innovations that have been developed in Wisconsin. He voiced none of them. Nor did Evers. that meant Walker missed a chance to be a leader on the number one economic issue in the state and nation. He played it safe, as he did with the rest of his unexciting campaign.
His passivity is perplexing because he knew he was behind in the polls in the months before the vote, and he knew that disgust on the left with President Trump was going to cause a big turnout of Democrats. He warned his party repeatedly about the coming blue wave.
Issues are not everything in a campaign. The ground game – signs, knocking on doors, phone calls – is critical, as the overwhelming turnouts in Dane and Milwaukee counties proved.But Walker’s vanilla stand on the issues undoubtedly played into his shortfall in the dark red WOW counties. He won fewer votes in Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties than he did when he ran against Mary Burke in 2014.
The Trump drag probably cost him some independent votes in those three counties, even though Walker kept more separation from the president than did Leah Vukmir running for the U.S Senate. She lost by 13 points; he lost by two.
The Walker team made the calculation that the strength of the state’s economy and its low unemployment rate would carry the day for the governor. But the voters surely knew that all states were doing well. Some may have known or sensed that Wisconsin has sharply trailed the nation in job growth. Voters didn’t feel job and wage progress; job growth even faded in the WOW counties in recent quarters.
Walker promised the creation of 250,000 jobs in his first run for governor in 2010. He relied heavily on manufacturing friendly policies, even as the economy was headed strongly in the services direction, manufacturing could no longer be counted on for big job growth and job creation was largely in the hands of entrepreneurs.It took two terms to get close to the 250,000 target, about half the national growth rate.
That slicing and dicing aside, Walker came close to a third term. Only Tommy Thompson has won more than two terms.
I can’t see Walker as a lobbyist. His two terms were scandal free. He might go back to non-profit work. But he’ll probably run again. This is not an obituary.
He’s only 52, and running for office is what he does. Including his runs for the assembly, Milwaukee county executive, governor and presidency, he has run 13 times in the last 26 years. He is more of a campaigner than a policy and issues guy. That’s his essence.