WAUKESHA, Wisconsin – Pitching himself as a battle-tested champion of “big bold reforms,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced his presidential campaign on Monday.
“After a great deal of thought and a whole lot of prayer, we are so honored to have you join with us today as we officially announce that we are running to serve as your president of the United States of America,” Walker, joined by his wife and two children, told a crowd of thousands of fans who packed into a steamy indoor stage to show their support.
The governor has emerged as a top tier contender in the Republican primaries, where he offers up a rare mix of humble roots, executive experience, and ideological purity. In his announcement speech he recalled flipping burgers at McDonald’s as a teenager, recounted his father’s career as a preacher and his mother’s work as a secretary, and noted he and his brother “didn’t inherit fame and fortune from our family,” an unstated contrast with top rival Jeb Bush’s presidential roots.
Walker had something for everyone in the GOP in his speech. For social conservatives, he reminded them he’s pro-life and would protect Americans “born or unborn.” For tea partiers, he offered a smorgasbord of red meat in his record, from drug testing welfare recipients to voter ID laws. Walker’s inexperienced on foreign policy but showcased his hawk credentials with calls for expanded military action against ISIS and a harder line against Iran. For business conservatives, he recalled how he “took on the unions and won” and signed $2 billion of tax cuts into law.
“If our reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in America,” Walker said.
Walker’s campaign is centered in large part around his struggles against organized labor, which led a massive protest campaign in 2011 to prevent the legislature from limiting collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. Walker prevailed in the standoff and then consolidated his gains by surviving a recall election in 2012 and a tough re-election campaign in 2014, a battle his campaign sought to remind voters of with a video this week entitled “Recall the Recall.”
“My record shows that I know how to fight and win,” Walker said. “Now, more than ever, America needs a president who will fight and win for America.”
The 2011 labor struggle made Walker a national hero on the right and a supervillain on the left. Walker reignited their conflict again in 2015 by signing a law making Wisconsin a “right to work” state, which limits the ability of unions to collect dues from workers.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who represents the largest umbrella group of unions in the United States, summed up their relationship with a one-sentence statement on Monday: “Scott Walker is a national disgrace,” he said.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton took a swipe at the governor’s labor record the same day in a high-profile speech laying out her economic plan. “Republican governors like Scott Walker have made their names stomping on workers’ rights,” Clinton said, calling his policies “mean-spirited” and “misguided.”
Many of Walker’s stated goals on Monday consisted of undoing President Obama’s signature policies. He pledged to demand Congress “repeal the so-called Affordable Care Act entirely” on his first day in office.
Referring to ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program that reportedly are close to yielding fruit, Walker reiterated his willingness to abandon any agreement reached by Obama, a move that could alienate the world powers who have thrown their support behind the talks.
“Looking ahead, we need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office, put in place crippling economic sanctions and convince our allies to do exactly the same thing,” Walker said.
He set a goal to “repeal Obama’s bad regulations” and derided the president for calling climate change “the greatest threat to future generations.”
“Mr. President, I respectfully disagree,” Walker said. “The greatest threat to future generations is radical Islamic terrorism and we need to do something about it.”
At the same time, Walker said he would emphasize a positive platform of policy ideas centered around “reform,” “growth,” and “safety.”
“Traveling the country, I’ve heard people say that they are tired of politicians who only tell them what they’re against and why they should vote against someone,” he said. “Americans want to vote for something and for someone.”
Meanwhile, campaign staff at the event kept a close eye out for protesters and advised the dozens of volunteers who attended the event beforehand to start chanting “USA! USA! USA!” if a disturbance broke out to allow security time to move in. In the end, no one crashed the event – save for an airplane overhead that carried a sign reading “Scott Walker has a Koch problem,” a reference to his relationship with conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
In the short term, Walker’s odds of winning the nomination are heavily tied to his performance in socially conservative Iowa, where he’ll campaign for three days starting on Friday. The governor is counting on his Midwestern style and personal ties to Iowa, where he spent part of his youth, to power him to victory and then use the momentum to overcome rivals like Bush, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and others who are eyeing early primary states like New Hampshire and Florida to boost their own campaign.
Looking further ahead, a looming question is whether Walker can continue to appeal to conservatives without compromising his other calling card: electability. A major part of Walker’s argument to GOP voters is that he’s proven it’s possible to govern hard to the right and still win repeatedly in a blue state. That case may be a tough sell for some party leaders who are concerned that his positions on immigration and social issues – two areas where he’s moved to the right in recent months – are likely to repel Latino voters and millennials should he win the nomination.
That’s a problem for another day, however. On Monday, Walker offered up a solid survey of the accomplishments, ideology, and style that have made him one of the leading contenders for his party’s nomination.