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Politics & Government

Walker's Wisconsin: How Does He Want the Nation to View the State?

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Wisconsin’s governor has been comparing the state to the federal government, saying Wisconsin is more efficient and innovative.

Scott Walker’s comments, such as those he made after winning reelection last month, appear to be an attempt to position himself for a run for the White House:

“You see, the folks in Washington like this ‘top down’ approach, that’s old and artificial and outdated, that says the government knows best. We believe that you should build the economy from the ground up,” Walker said at his victory party on Nov. 4.

Since Election Day, Walker has played up his opinion on at least one big national issue: immigration. He encouraged, and then joined, a legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s order, allowing millions of undocumented residents to remain in the country.

“It’s just very clear. He has gone beyond the rule of law in this case,” Walker said.

Walker’s stance came as no surprise to Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari.

“This is pretty clearly positioning himself for a more national role,” Azari says.

Yet here at home, as Republican legislators push for a right-to-work law, Walker has refused to lead the charge. Right-to-work means employers and unions cannot force private sector workers to pay union dues. Azari says there’s good reason for Walker to sidestep the issue: he doesn’t want to reawaken the massive battle he ignited in 2011 with Act 10, which weakened public unions.

"Labor constituencies are well organized, and they’re active, and they go to Madison, and they make a big visual, protesting in front of the Capitol. Walker may not want to go into that fight, for the second round,” Azari says.

Besides, Azari says, the governor would have little to gain nationally, by backing right-to-work.

“From a presidential primary standpoint, it’s not clear that right-to-work is going to be the issue that’s going to fire up the primary donors and the primary electorate,” Azari says.

Mordecai Lee, UW-Milwaukee professor of governmental affairs, has some thoughts on what would fire up the big spenders and the primary voters: “I think he’s going to want to demonstrate that he’s ideologically consistent, he’s very conservative, that his conservatism is both about economics -- in other words, taxes -- but also about social issues, things like abortion.”

In addition to ideologically satisfying the base of the Republican Party, Dennis Riley sees a practical challenge facing Walker. He must address a big deficit in Wisconsin’s next budget. Riley is a political scientist at UW-Stevens Point. He says if Walker hopes to earn national appeal, he must be able to tout the state’s reputation and record.

“Right now, I think that the perception is that we busted the unions and kind of came back for a brief time with a balanced budget, very short, I think that’s the national perspective, but that will change as the hole in the budget becomes more apparent and gets talked about on a national scale,” Riley says.

Riley says the governor could use a successful track record of running Wisconsin, to pull attention away from other presidential contenders.

“When people think of Wisconsin and Republican politics, the first name is Paul Ryan, because he had that opportunity to be a national candidate. And Walker has been much more under the radar, and the sort-of Republican governor “oxygen” has been sucked out by people like Chris Christie and Rick Perry. The big personalities have taken the spotlight,” Riley says.

It was Walker’s battle with public unions that launched him into the national spotlight. Yet, that was nearly four years ago.

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