CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA-Wisconsin governor and 2016 presidential candidate Scott Walker is aggressively selling himself to Republicans based on four points: he’s deeply conservative, very skilled at winning elections, courageous in promoting Republican causes even when they are controversial and a humble, self-made man.
As he campaigned last week in three cities in this state, a crucial one in the GOP primary, Walker repeated the same anecdotes, sometimes word-for-word, to reinforce those ideas. Walker has a very clear, well-defined story he is telling about himself.
But should Republicans and other Americans believe it?
1. Walker is a true conservative
“The last three elections, we’ve had about 96 percent of Republicans,” he said of his recent home state victories at luncheon of GOP activists in Charleston. “So from libertarian to social conservative, from Chamber of Commerce to Tea Party and everywhere in between, we have almost universal support among Republicans the last three elections.”
As that remark showed, Walker is directly making the point that he is a conservative across the board, able to unite religious conservatives passionate about issues like abortion, national security voters more focused on terrorism and those who care most about the economy.
In other parts of this stump speech, he is slightly more subtle. He mentions prayer over and over again in his addresses, in a show of his faith and a signal to voters who are also deeply religious.
Walker and his wife, he says, prayed over his decision to run for governor of Wisconsin in 2010. (Unmentioned is that Walker had long been planning a gubernatorial campaign and briefly ran in 2006 before dropping out when it was clear he would lose.)
He notes supporters prayed for him in the midst of the controversy after he signed a bill in 2011 that limited collective bargaining rights for public employees and then again when he faced a recall because of that legislation.
When Walker’s friend Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, was tapped to be the GOP's vice-presidential nominee in 2012, Walker says his advice to Ryan was to pay special attention to people on the campaign trail who told Ryan they were praying for him.
In making his case on fiscal issues, Walker says, “We need to balance the budget, we need to take on the debt and deficit, but we need to do so primarily by driving for growth in this country. Austerity alone is not the answer.”
“Growth” implies Walker agrees with supply-side conservatives, who argue large tax cuts will help stimulate the economy.
On national security, in addition to the traditional GOP rhetoric of blasting Obama for not using the phrase Islamic fundamentalism and having poor relations with Israel, Walker says, “We need a leader ... who will do whatever it takes to make sure that radical Islamic terrorism does not wash up on American soil.”
“I’d rather take the fight to them,” he says, referring to ISIS.
The phrasing is very similar to how George W. Bush described the rationale for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago.
And Walker emphasizes other conservative positions, such as signing a voter ID law and a right-to-work provision in Wisconsin.
Walker is no doubt conservative. But his record suggests his conservatism is balanced with a heavy amount of calculation based on the politics of the moment. He supported a legalization process for undocumented immigrants living in the United States before he turned against that idea; opposed federal mandates requiring the use of ethanol in gas until recently he became for them; fought strongly against gay marriage until he stopped.
2. He is a proven winner
Trying to woo conservative activists who care about issues but also desperately want to win back the White House, Walker at times sounds like a campaign operative as he ticks off statistics that show his political successes. He tells crowds that more than 300,000 people have donated money to him, more than any Republican except Mitt Romney.
Walker notes he has won repeatedly in Wisconsin, even though the last Republican presidential candidate to win there was Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The question is how much do Walker’s wins in Wisconsin translate to a presidential race. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998, so Walker is not entirely unique in winning statewide in the Badger State as a conservative.
Republicans currently control the state’s House and Senate.
Also, the Republican governors of Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio also all won in 2010 and were reelected in 2014, like Walker.
To be sure, Walker has governed more from the right than his four counterparts, who all expanded Medicaid through Obamacare.
At the same time, data suggests he would have had a hard time winning his three races if they had occurred on the same day as a presidential election, when turnout among more Democratic-leaning constituencies is almost always higher. The 2012 recall election that Walker won was in June that year and about 2.5 million people cast ballots.
In November 2012, President Obama defeated Romney in Wisconsin in a race where more than 3 million people voted.
3. He’s a courageous politician
Walker’s stump speech includes a detailed retelling of the debate over the 2011 union bill. He and his family faced death threats. His children were mocked by other classmates on Facebook. More than 100,000 protestors were at the state’s capitol building in Madison trying to stop the legislation.
“They were seeking to intimidate us,” says Walker.
Walker pushed through the union bill anyway and survived a recall funded by Democrats from across the country.
All of that is true. What’s left out of the story on the campaign trail is that Walker in both 2010 and 2014 ran entire campaigns without highlighting the most important, controversial move he would make once in office.
In his 2010 campaign, he did not detail that he would seek to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees, even though Walker presented this idea almost immediately after he entered office.
When he was running for reelection in 2014, Walker downplayed his support for passing a right-to-work bill in Wisconsin. He signed that provision earlier this month and is now touting it on the campaign trail.
This avoidance of key issues during his campaigns cuts against Walker’s case as a politician who leads confidently. And it’s a break from how both George W. Bush and Barack Obama approached their presidential campaigns.
Bush campaigned on and then enacted an overhaul of education policy and a major tax cut in his first year in office.
Obama talked about health care constantly during his 2008 run.
Several years ago, Walker says he bought something from the department store Kohl’s, brought it home and then was upbraided by his wife Tonette for not using coupons to reduce the price, as many Kohl’s customers do. Walker has told this anecdote in almost every speech he has given since he started running for president three months ago.
Walker says he still shops at Kohl’s.
The governor never quite says this, but the implication is that he is a small-town man who has not forgotten his roots and that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush probably don’t shop at Kohl’s now and perhaps never have.
This is Walker’s most accurate selling point. In an era of celebrity, millionaire candidates, Walker is truly an exception. He does not have any close relatives in politics. He did not graduate from college (a detail he sometimes leaves out of his speeches). He is truly a self-made pol.