Base Politics

Why Scott Walker’s current troubles were entirely predictable.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
No one should have been surprised by Gov. Walker’s stormy entry into the early primary season.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Scott Walker is causing an awful lot of waves for a guy whose biggest shortcoming is his supposed milquetoast manner. Last week, the Wisconsin governor repeatedly declined to distance himself from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s declaration that President Obama doesn’t love America. On Saturday, in response to a question about whether he thought Obama was a Christian, Walker replied, “I don’t know.” Meanwhile, Walker is stirring things up back in Wisconsin with his plan for cuts to the state university system and with his announcement that, contrary to what he’d said a few weeks earlier, he is open to the legislature passing an anti-union “right to work” bill.

These flashes of hard edge, combined with Walker’s surge in the (very early) polls for the Republican primaries, have startled many in the national media. These episodes have challenged the accepted narrative about Walker—that he is a Republican with unusual crossover appeal, someone who wears his conservatism in such mild-mannered and affable fashion that he has managed to win three times in a state that hasn’t gone Republican for president since 1984. “Establishment-leaning Republicans love that he’s shown how to govern and win three elections in four years in a state that usually leans Democratic,” wrote The Hill last month. Even Walker’s showdown with the public employee unions in 2011 was not necessarily taken as evidence against this narrative, perhaps because so many in the national media tacitly agree with Republicans on the need to rein in public employee unions.

But in reality, no one should have been surprised by Walker’s stormy entry into the early primary season, because the conventional wisdom about him was flawed all along. As I reported last year, Walker rose to power in Wisconsin less by reaching out to Democrats and swing voters than by appealing to the conservative base in a state that is as starkly polarized as any in the country. Wisconsin is not politically purple because it is full of voters who straddle party lines and swing back and forth from election to election. It is purple because it is divided into two strikingly cohesive and fiercely energized camps, as displayed in the eye-popping maps that accompanied the definitive series on the state’s political polarization last year by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert. Walker himself admitted to Gilbert that there wasn’t much wooing of swing voters going on anymore: “It was always a divided state but it used to be [that] you’d explain it as ‘40/40/20,’ and 20 percent was the persuadable middle,” Walker said. “That percent has shrunk now to 5, 6 percent maybe … or five or six people.”

Democrats run up big numbers in the cities of Milwaukee and Madison (which is home to both the state government and flagship branch of the university). Republicans do well in the state’s rural areas, but, more than that, they rely on their total domination in the suburbs of Milwaukee—the “WOW Counties” of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. In other major northern cities, once-heavily white and Republican-leaning suburbs have in recent years grown more racially diverse and politically purple, if not outright blue—think of Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, Cook County outside of Chicago, or Fairfax County outside of Washington. But not metro Milwaukee. There, partly because of a fluke of history, the suburbs have remained monolithically white, in a sort of demographic time warp, and have if anything grown even more reliably Republican.

These suburbs are Walker’s base. Yes, he’s worked hard to win over what swing voters still exist in the state by spending a lot of time in the only real contested area that remains, the Fox River region that includes Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Appleton. But he has won three times (in 2010, the attempted recall in June of 2012, and his re-election last fall) by getting gobsmacking vote tallies in the WOW counties, where some communities break for him at margins above 75 percent and at turnout levels that are among the very highest in the country. (Milwaukee and Madison also turn out at very high numbers for Democrats, relative to cities in other states, but more so in presidential years—a big reason why Walker won three times in his blue-leaning state is that he never had to run on a presidential ballot.)

And Walker’s base in the WOW counties hasn’t just delivered him three election victories. It has encouraged a certain political cast of mind. As a young state legislator representing an inner-suburban district (one that has since grown more Democratic, unlike the WOW counties), Walker occasionally worked across the aisle. But as he rose in the ranks, eventually getting elected executive of Milwaukee County (which includes both the city and its inner suburbs), Walker began playing more and more to the WOW base. Initially, this took the form of his frequent appearances on the local conservative talk-radio shows, which draw loyal audiences in the WOW counties, hold significant sway over Republican politicians in the state, and are characterized by a constant stream of anti-city of Milwaukee rhetoric, some of it racially charged. Even after being elected governor, Walker has kept his close ties to the talk-radio shows, which can be counted on to come to his defense in tough spots or have him on the air whenever he wants to get his message out.

Put simply, Walker has risen to power in Wisconsin in something of a conservative bubble, where there is more emphasis on doctrinal consistency and energizing the base than on engaging the opposition. So it should not be surprising that Walker would punt on a question about evolution, as he did recently in England, or that he would see no need to distance himself from Giuliani’s comment, unlike other 2016 aspirants from another swing state, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. In Walker’s world, it matters more not to be seen as squishy than to worry about saying something that could ruffle liberal feathers. Heck, ruffling liberal feathers is what wins in the WOW counties and on the shows they listen to. “If he says something stupid … he can run to the outlets and they’ll take care of it,” Christopher Terry, a former employee of one of the talk shows told me last year. “He could eat a child on television and [Milwaukee talk radio] would go on about how it benefits children.”

Whereas, Terry added, “when they get a hold of him and he can’t jump in the safety zone, it’ll go hard on him.” Which is what is happening now. Walker is no longer just talking to Charlie Sykes on WTMJ or Mark Belling on WISN. He is in the early stages of running for president, and his comments are causing genuine alarm from some of the gatekeepers. The Washington Post editorial page—no friend of public employee unions—devoted its lead editorial last week to admonishing Walker over his “spineless silence” at Giuliani’s comments last week, and deans of the political press corps, such as Dan Balz and Chuck Todd, have also raised their proverbial eyebrows at Walker. Yes, Walker may have helped himself further with primary voters in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere. But he has also brought renewed focus to the question I raised last year: Is the party that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said needed to broaden its appeal if it wanted to improve on its 2012 performance really going to want to nominate someone whose instincts are attuned above all to the politics of suburban-Milwaukee conservative talk radio?

Maybe so—after all, there are those who believe the Republicans could take one more shot at winning the presidency with an overwhelmingly homogenous (i.e., white) base of support and unreformed platform, before doing so becomes simply inconceivable. That is the option that Walker is presenting to his party—something that is becoming clearer for the world to see with every week that he is out there, letting his WOW–county inheritance show.