Governor Scott Walker has risen to the top of American politics relying mostly on his own instincts, according to both supporters and opponents in Wisconsin who have watched his climb. It's an insular, top-down style that has served the governor well but has also raised concerns among some of his supporters as he embarks on a national campaign.
This approach is not unusual in politics but as Walker's stage gets larger, some Republicans worry that the responsibilities are too great for one person to handle. They say some of the minor stumbles in the early stages of Walker’s potential presidential campaign are, in part, rooted in his supreme self-confidence that stems from his long-standing electoral success.
Michael Beightol, head of Coyote March & Associates public relations firm who has supported the governor and has watched his career, said Walker is “a hard guy to talk to. He doesn’t take counsel from anybody.”
In his first term in office, Walker successfully implemented an aggressive, conservative agenda, passing a significant number of pieces of legislation - the most prominent being Act 10, a proposal to eliminate collective bargaining of teachers unions and increase their contribution to health care and pension payments. It was a major blow to public sector unions in the state where the labor movement was born, but of equal significance was how the idea was devised, presented and passed.
The idea was Walker's alone. He didn't tell his staff or allied leaders of the Republican-led legislature about his plans to end teachers' and state workers' collective bargaining ability. He detailed the process in his book, "Unintimidated" where it "took a moment for (his staff) to realize I was not just asking a hypothetical question. I had already made up my mind.”
“This is how I approach major policy decisions,” he wrote.
After he told his staff, he presented his plan to the legislature who was at first taken aback. “I walked them through our plan and when I finished, there was dead silence in the room," he wrote.
"(Walker's) insular nature ends up being a simple bandwidth problem."
Rep. Robin Vos, Speaker of the Wisconsin state Assembly, said Walker has been in politics for a long time and knows what the issues and he knows exactly what he wants to do.
"Walker is somebody who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in," Vos said. "Walker knows what he believes and knows what he wants to accomplish."
Those who know him say he's a talented politician good at both politics and policy. Republicans in Wisconsin say Walker is his own best adviser, pundit, policy expert and strategist.
Also in his book, Walker wrote about the time he received a prank call from a comedian named Ian Murphy pretending to be David Koch, one of the billionaire conservative activists brothers that give enormous amounts of money to Republican candidates and conservative third party groups. After the embarrassing episode, instead of presenting Walker with a plan to address the public relations problem, his staff asked Walker what the response should be.
“My answer was simple: Schedule a press conference and take it on directly,” Walker wrote, indicating that Walker was the lead - and only - decision maker in the response.
Former state Sen. Ted Kanavas, who was Mitt Romney's Wisconsin state chair during the 2012 presidential election and is supporting Walker this year, said Walker "basically takes his own counsel."
Both friends and foes say Walker is incredibly smart and has navigated most political issues well, but they say Walker's reliance on himself could be problematic as he embarks on a national campaign that is much more complicated and difficult to manage.
"(Walker's) insular nature ends up being a simple bandwidth problem," Kanavas said.
As Walker catapulted to the top of the polls in the presidential race after his successful appearance at the Faith and Freedom conference in Iowa Freedom Summit in January, Walker has had numerous missteps that have caused his campaign team to retreat and tightly control his interactions with the press. Those missteps include, comparing unions to ISIS, showing little understanding of foreign policy, changing his position on immigration, refusing to say if Obama loved the United States and punting on questions about evolution.
A former top aide to four-term Governor Tommy Thompson, a Wisconsinite who helped to build the Republican Party in the state and passed conservative reforms to welfare and a host of other issues, said Walker doesn’t call and ask for advice.
“It’s hard to break through the Walker and Tonette power structure,” the former Thompson aide said, referring to Walker’s wife, who Republicans say is one of his top policy advisers and acts as his sounding board.
In his book Walker describes Tonette as “an excellent political barometer for me because she is like a lot of Wisconsin voters – smart and well read but focused on things other than politics.”
Mark Graul, a longtime Wisconsin political operative who has known Walker since their early 20s when they both were active in the Republican Party, said it's ridiculous that Walker should be criticized because he's good at his job.
"I don't buy that argument that because he's so good when it comes to communications and relateability that people mistake that as a problem," Graul said.
But Walker is known to hold his cards close and his few friends closer. He is not one to socialize with members of the legislature or engage in extended policy discussions.
“I was never that close to Walker,” said former state Sen. Mike Ellis, who was the president of the Wisconsin senate during Walker’s entire first term. “I don’t even know if Walker’s ever had a drink.”
Walker, who has served in elected office since 1993, has developed the trust of a few close confidantes, however. They small group are politicos who work in Wisconsin's electoral politics and have helped Walker in his upward trajectory in the Badger State. One of his closest confidantes is RJ Johnson, a political consultant who also ran the Wisconsin Club for Growth, an outside political group that raised more than $9 million during Walker’s recall campaign. Brad Courtney, the head of the Wisconsin Republican Party, is also a close friend of Walkers who was instrumental in his initial election to governor's mansion in 2010. Keith Gilkes and Michael Grebe are two more people mentioned as Walker lieutenants. Gilkes is a campaign adviser who just started a super PAC in support of Walker's expected presidential run and Grebe ran Walker's reelection campaign. He is also the president of the Bradley Foundation, a conservative organization that gives millions to conservative causes and policy objectives, including Walker's policy proposals.
Supporters are hopeful, however, that Walker's has learned from his recent flubs on the national stage. They say he has hired some strong staff for his expected presidential run.
"He's hired well," Kanavas said about his impending presidential campaign. "That's a good sign."
Kanavas said Rick Wiley, a fellow Wisconsinite who has worked on presidential campaigns and is expected to be Walker's campaign manager, has a tough job. But he added that Wiley is a a solid choice whose challenge will be to guide Walker, instead of allowing Walker to guide himself.
"Wiley has a hell of a job in front of him because he has to manage Walker's instinct to get out in front of everything," Kanavas said.