The governor changes his approach every two to four years. This time, will he own up to his moderate ways?
Austin, Texas, is about 1,500 miles from Washington, D.C., but on Nov. 15, that was barely far enough. The influential Republican Governors Association was holding its annual conference at the JW Marriott hotel downtown, a tall, glassy structure that takes up the better part of a city block. President Donald Trump, present only in spirit, was never far from the minds of those GOP governors, especially the 26 who face re-election campaigns in 2018 – including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
During a closed-door meeting, Vice President Mike Pence assured the governors the White House stood ready to go to bat for them in 2018. Pence, the former governor of Indiana, knew as well as they did that the year could turn into a countrywide, mid-term backlash against Trump and the GOP. As such, few wanted his help. The New York Times, which spoke to someone who was also in the room, reported that Walker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan “hoped the administration would prove collaborative and respect the wishes of governors who want Mr. Trump to stay away.” And the tart words for Trump only increased after Pence flew back to Washington.
Few governors are under more pressure than Walker this cycle as he recovers from a failed presidential run and gauges the public’s appetite for his reputedly hard-nosed approach to fiscal policy. Walker rose to national prominence, after all, as one of the toughest budgetary hawks in the country, and to what extent he’ll live up to those roots – or move toward chaotic, Trump-fanned populism, or follow a third path – remains to be seen.
Walker’s fiscal record has always been at the heart of his tenure as governor, but on closer examination, it’s evolved to be something more moderate, even lax — certainly more so than he’ll admit in public. Will 2018 finally be the year he presents himself plainly and takes on the mantle of a moderate? As it stands, he’s likely reassessing much of his basic strategy, having just re-emerged from the low-approval wilderness, the likes of which he hadn’t struggled with since 2011. This time around, he bottomed out in September 2015, at the end of his brief run for president, at 37 percent – and he didn’t recover to 48 percent until last June.
Walker’s long journey of gubernatorial transformation began in 2011, when the Act 10 union legislation and his first budget, which sliced $800 million from K-12 education, shook the state to its core. Confronted with a large structural deficit and the desire to make sweeping conservative changes early in his first term, Walker dove in headfirst and sucked the rest of the state into a Maelstrom. In the 2012 recall election that followed, he stuck to his guns, repeating in endless ads, “Our reforms are working.”
Yet in the two years that followed, Walker went a bit soft. The difficulties of funding state government and wrangling with the Legislature took their toll, and by late 2014, the state had gone from Walker’s hard-won (and celebrated) positive “structural” balance to a projected structural deficit of $1.8 billion, one of the worst in recent history, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Such a deficit is like a fiscal hangover from the previous two years and refers to the amount the state is already in the hole when it sets to writing the next biennial budget.
Freshly re-elected in 2015, Walker proposed a $127 million cut to K-12 (denied by the Legislature) but also $1.3 billion in new borrowing for road construction, of which lawmakers approved $850 million. By this point, the hawk had more or less come in for a landing, as the size of state government swelled by some $4.4 billion in the 2015-17 state budget, according to the conservative MacIver Institute. “It is disappointing to see such a large increase in spending,” a MacIver report says.
Walker tends to spend the most when there’s an election in the offing. In the run-up to the 2014 vote, he announced a $977 million “surplus,” followed by a $541 million tax cut plan, all of which later contributed to the state’s structural deficit. And last year, the checkbook was out again, with a record $639 million increase for schools included in the 2017-19 budget, not to mention $3 billion in incentives for luring Foxconn Technology Group to Racine County. After an energy-sucking presidential campaign, he needed to show he was still dedicated to the state.
This election could be Walker’s toughest yet. “It’s likely to be headwinds for every Republican in the country right now,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, noting Trump’s low approval rating and the tendency of midterm elections to swing against the ruling party.
Even Foxconn, Walker’s $10 billion coup, could turn into a liability. Republicans are still pumped about the project, but Democrats think it’s overpriced and liable to bomb politically outside of Southeast Wisconsin.
A groundbreaking ceremony has been optimistically scheduled for the first week of October and could give Walker a boost. Or maybe not. One Democratic insider laughs at how difficult the project will be to sell to outstate voters after years of Republicans’ demonizing Milwaukee and Madison. They’ll have to distract from it, he says, by digging up dirt on Democrats, “one shit story after another.” ◆