Wisconsin Three-Peat

Why no one can beat Scott Walker.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker greets supporters at his election night victory party on Nov. 4, 2014, in West Allis, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker greets supporters at his election night victory party on Nov. 4, 2014, in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images

WEST ALLIS, Wisconsin—“First off, I want to thank God.”

Gov. Scott Walker had just come on stage at the State Fair Exposition Center to give his third victory speech in four years, and the supporters mashed up in front of the stage were totally losing it.

“I want to thank God for his abundant grace and mercy,” Walker continued. “Win or lose, it is more than sufficient for each and every one of us.”

The crowd exploded.

It’s nice of Walker to throw in that “win or lose” line, but he didn’t really need it. Walker doesn’t lose. The governor first got elected in 2010 by 5.8 points, won an acrimonious recall election in 2012 by 6.8 points, and looks set to win his first real re-election bid by about 6 points.

Walker’s supporters at the victory party were elated but not surprised. They argued his win was in the cards from jump street, that Democratic nominee Mary Burke’s dependence on out-of-state support backfired, and that Walker’s superhuman ability to stay on message made re-election way easier than it looked to many (including me!). The governor had a straightforward strategy, and he stuck to it.

Wisconsin Republicans expect the final voting data to confirm that Walker won in large part because he took Fox Valley in northeast Wisconsin. That region, which includes Green Bay, is the state’s second largest media market (after Milwaukee and before Madison). Walker visited the area about a dozen times in the past two weeks of the campaign, according to Wisconsin GOP First Vice Chairman Brian Schimming, and he had a robust field operation there.

To be fair, he had a robust field operation everywhere, with 23 offices around the state and an effective grass-roots organization.

“I’ve been doing state races for 25 years,” said state Rep. John Nygren. “This is the most door-to-door intensive race I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been around.”

Fox Valley was the battleground, Schimming said, and Walker won the battle there. If there’s a single factor that put him over the edge, he argued, that was it.

Other Republican observers added more detail. A hallmark of Walker’s campaign was his total non-interest in appearing with outside surrogates. As he toured the state, he appeared with Republican leaders in their home districts, including Rep. Sean Duffy in Eau Claire and Rep. Paul Ryan. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also toured the state by bus with Walker in the home stretch. Priebus is also from Wisconsin, a fact Walker often touted as they stumped together. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also visited the state to campaign for Walker, but that’s because he invited himself.

Walker tapped into the cycle’s near-universal anti-Washington sentiment, decrying the influence of “Washington special interests” on the Badger State at every campaign stop.

Some victory partygoers said things really started looking up for Walker about a month ago. That’s when, with Burke’s supporters outspending Walker’s, negative ads swamped the airwaves. Burke drew significant support from Emily’s List, an organization that backs pro-choice female Democratic candidates, and she also won backing from labor organizations and the president himself, who visited to hold a rally for her.

Walker loyalists said that as money from outside groups and unions poured into the state for Burke and as her campaign came to be associated with its out-of-state surrogates (first lady Michelle Obama stumped for her twice), voters got recall flashbacks.

“I think it ended up that way,” Schimming said.

“I used to tell the Democrats they helped us with the recall,” he continued, “because they spent so much time trying to go after him that they really turned off a lot of people.”

Schimming described that 2012 election as “a pretty vicious time.” And some Walker backers argue that Burke’s brutal attacks against the governor reminded voters of a moment in state politics that they weren’t particularly interested in revisiting.

“Wisconsin voters are very independent voters,” said Nick Novak, communications director for the conservative MacIver Institute think tank. “Gov. Walker was very clear about what he was going to do, and that’s probably why the voters chose to elect him.”

While Walker was repeating the same simple pitch throughout the state, national labor organizations were running ads targeting the governor and Burke was hobnobbing with the president and first lady in the state’s two most liberal cities, Madison and Milwaukee. If Burke bet on this being an anti-incumbent election cycle, Walker bet on its being anti-Washington. And he bet right.

“The difference between Washington and Wisconsin—the folks in Washington like this top-down approach that’s old and artificial and outdated and says that government knows best,” Walker said in his victory speech, over roaring fans. “We say that you should build the economy from ground up that’s new and fresh and organic, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

What, specifically, are they going to do? Tax cuts and school choice reforms are safe bets. The governor has mulled expanding the state’s voucher program, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains, and Madison insiders say that’s likely to be a top priority for the governor’s second term. And Wisconsin Politics is reporting that Republicans grew their majorities in both chambers of the statehouse, so Walker will have ample backing.

The possibility of passing Right to Work legislation will also come up. Walker hasn’t floated this idea, but, per one statehouse observer, he’ll hear about it from advisers and conservative backers.

It’s hard to believe that Walker would have the appetite for another round of union battles. But it was also hard to believe he would win three elections in four years, and that he would win this last one, against an opponent whose backers outspent his by a cushy margin. So here’s some analysis: When it’s Scott Walker, the unlikely is never that far-fetched.