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Scott Walker's politics of confrontation

A deliberately polarizing approach and a breakout speech in Iowa have helped this charisma-challenged college dropout vault to the front of the GOP's 2016 pack.
Scott Walker (Photo by John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP)
Newly reelected Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is greeted by members of his staff and cabinet during a post-election day gathering at the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 5, 2014.

Last week, Scott Walker committed his first real misstep since he emerged last month as perhaps the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. 

In his new budget, the Wisconsin governor tweaked the mission statement for his state’s vaunted university system, removing its commitment to “the search for truth,” and adding in its place a focus on “the state’s work-force needs.” After even some Republicans protested, Walker backed down, with his office claiming that the proposed changes were merely a “drafting error” — an explanation that quickly collapsed.

No doubt the kerfuffle was an embarrassment for Walker, but in the long run, it might only serve to reinforce his brand.

The skirmish over the university’s mission statement showcased a politician going out of his way to pick fights with the kind of powerful, liberal institutions that conservatives yearn to see taken down a peg, and willing to use any tactics at his disposal. It’s a deliberately polarizing approach that has helped this rumpled, charisma-challenged college dropout and career politician shoot to the front of the GOP's 2016 pack, while making a serious bid to unite the establishment and far-right wings of his fractious party.

After a breakout performance at a key conservative confab in first-in-the-nation Iowa last month, Walker is leading in polls of the state — where, by the way, he just happens to have spent part of his childhood.

"There's a reason we take a day off to celebrate the 4th of July and not the 15th of April," Walker shouted, to enthusiastic cheers. "Because in America we value our independence from the government, not our dependence on it."

RELATED: GOP governors want higher education cuts to recoup budget shortfalls

The son of a preacher, Walker is fluent in the language of Christian conservatism. And there's no question that as governor, he's checked all the conservative boxes: tax cuts — yes; rejecting Medicaid — sure; de-funding Planned Parenthood — of course. But his high-profile fight against organized labor has also helped make him a favorite of the party’s deep-pocketed business wing. Most important, as the thrice-elected governor of a state that has twice gone for President Obama, Walker has proved he can win in challenging territory. This week, he’s burnishing his foreign policy credentials with a trip to London.

"The decisions he makes, he asks basically three questions: How can I enrich my donors? How can I advance myself amongst my peers? And how can I punish who I perceive as my enemies?"'

Walker, 47, first ran for office at age 22. And a presidential bid — he has already announced the exploratory committee — would be his 14th campaign in 25 years.

Scot Ross, who runs One Wisconsin Now, a progressive activist group that has been among the governor’s fiercest foes, describes Walker as “politics incarnate.” “The decisions he makes, he asks basically three questions: How can I enrich my donors? How can I advance myself amongst my peers? And how can I punish who I perceive as my enemies?” said Ross. “And what you see is him constantly using his office in order to do that.”

Exhibit A in that case is what's known as Act 10. That measure, drafted by Walker and his allies in 2011, was billed as an effort to close the state’s deficit. But it effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees in the state, which has a long and proud history of labor organizing. When unions and their progressive allies made national news by occupying the state capitol building to denounce the bill as an unprecedented attack on working people, it briefly looked like the young governor had overplayed his hand. But Walker held his nerve, faced down the protesters, and, with the help of supportive leaders in the legislature, rammed the bill through.

Four years later, the political power of the state’s unions has withered — a boon for the state’s Republicans. And Walker’s attack on collective bargaining has served as a model for other Republican governors in the Midwest, where labor has long been a powerful political force. 

RELATED: Can Scott Walker handle the truth?

Meanwhile, the fight over Act 10 brought Walker to the attention of national-level Republican donors and activists, as a crusading conservative eager to take the battle to liberals.

That attention only intensified when Democrats led a recall campaign against Walker the following year, prompting a flood of right-wing money — much of it tied to the Koch Brothers — to pour into the governor's campaign coffers. When all was said and done, Walker defeated the recall by a slightly higher margin than he’d won election in 2010.

“I think Walker really developed a kind of skill and a national network when the recall election happened,” said Barry Burden, a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin. “There was just so much national attention on that, and he raised so much money from out of state that he’s built up a network of people he can now go to.”

“He became a sort of hero for the conservative moment,” Burden added.

Walker also pushed the envelope in finding ways to get around campaign finance limits. Prosecutors have been looking into whether his campaign to fight the recall illegally coordinated with a conservative group, the Wisconsin Club for Growth. And according to documents unearthed in the probe, Walker directed supporters to give to the group rather than to his campaign, because it was subject to higher contribution limits.

“The people he associates with have come up with some inventive ways to do things that are legal but are on the frontier of what’s possible,” said Burden.

Walker has taken the same approach when it comes to voting access. Soon after taking office in 2011, he pushed for the state’s restrictive voter ID law, which last year was struck down by a federal judge as racially discriminatory — around 300,000 Wisconsinites, predominantly minorities, lack the ID required — before being reinstated on appeal. Now the case could well wind up before the Supreme Court. Walker also supported cuts to early and weekend voting passed by lawmakers last year.

WATCH: Scott Walker benefits from Romney's exit

In fact, Walker’s zeal to make voting harder has long been a key part of his political persona. As early as 2000 — several years before any state passed a photo ID law — Walker was pushing for such a law as a member of the state legislature.

"When I go to Blockbuster to check out a video, I have to show my driver's license plus my Blockbuster card," he said at the time, test-driving an argument that has since been adopted by ID supporters everywhere. "Why is it that we have more precautions for protecting the release of a videotape than we do for ensuring the proper person is actually voting?"

This no-holds-barred philosophy has worked perfectly in Wisconsin. As a profile of Walker last year by The New Republic’s Alec Mc Gillis explained, the state is among the most polarized in the nation. The lack of persuadable voters has turned elections into almost pure turnout battles—meaning  stoking supporters’ enthusiasm is the key to victory.

That raises a crucial question as Walker turns his focus to a presidential bid. Most analysts have tended to see winning the presidency as a different kind of challenge — one that requires appealing to swing voters and forging broad coalitions. But as partisan polarization intensifies, has the nation caught up with Wisconsin?

Surveys in 2012 suggested that the number of persuadable voters had dropped sharply, and some post-election analyses found that a drop-off in white voters was a key reason why Mitt Romney lost. That led some number-crunchers to argue that the GOP’s best hope for 2016 isn’t to soften its rough edges, but rather to double down on its advantage with whites by turning out every last conservative it can find. If so, the party could hardly hope to find a better candidate for the job than Walker.