Throughout the 2012 election cycle Republicans have pined for a bold, conservative reformer—a leader courageous enough to make difficult choices and articulate enough to explain them to a skeptical public. The good news is they have such a candidate. The less good news: Scott Walker isn’t running for president. He’s running to hang on to his job as governor of Wisconsin.

Walker is the target of a recall effort funded by national labor unions. Why? Reforms he made to balance the budget have dramatically diminished the influence of public employee unions. If not reversed, these reforms will inspire similar efforts across the country, and the outsized power of public sector unions will finally be reined in.

The election in Wisconsin—which will happen in late spring or summer—could have a profound impact on the 2012 presidential race, with the winning side emerging from the battle organized and energized in one of the most important swing states this November.

Walker came to office in the Republican wave of 2010. He inherited a mess. Under his profligate predecessor, Jim Doyle, state government had operated almost as a slush fund for public employee unions. Giveaways to teachers and others put the state on an unsustainable fiscal path, so Doyle raised some taxes and threatened to raise others. He raided a state fund set up to cover medical liability, essentially stealing contributions doctors had made to the pooled account. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against that pilfering, but the money had already been spent. Even after budget gimmickry that would make Fannie and Freddie blush, the official deficit was $3.6 billion.

Just over a year later, Walker and the Republicans in the state legislature have nearly eliminated the deficit. For the two-year budget cycle, the state will show a $143 million shortfall because the stagnant economy has resulted in lower tax receipts than had been projected. But the shortfall is for the first half of the cycle; Wisconsin will run a surplus in the current fiscal year. And Walker said last week that he will eliminate the remaining shortfall without raising taxes. It’s a credible claim. He reduced the deficit without raising taxes. In fact, one of his first moves upon being sworn in was to cut taxes on businesses. His subsequent reforms have allowed property tax receipts to go down for the first time in years—by some $47 million.

The recall vote Walker faces comes because of these results. The key to his success was his restructuring of health and retirement benefits for many state employees, asking them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions (up from 1 percent or less) and to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums (up from 6 percent or so).

Even some of the governor’s harshest critics acknowledged that such changes were reasonable. “Walker is right about one thing,” wrote Eugene Robinson, liberal columnist for the Washington Post. “When it comes to pensions and benefits, public workers in Wisconsin have a sweet deal. .  .  . It’s easy to see why the average private-sector worker in Wisconsin—probably paying upward of 25 percent toward health insurance costs and struggling to tuck away something, anything for retirement—might agree with Walker.”

Walker understood from his years as Milwaukee County Executive that such changes could not occur without dramatic reforms of collective bargaining for public employee unions. So he proposed them, and Republicans in the state legislature made them law. The reforms also ended compulsory union membership.

The unions correctly understood these changes as a mortal threat. Without compulsory membership, unions would lose a major source of funds. And without the ability to bargain collectively for benefits, the unions would lose their most compelling argument to convince public employees to contribute a chunk of their income—in many cases more than $1,000 per year—for the privilege of membership. So they took to the streets in massive numbers and pressured the Democrats they’d elected to do everything possible to sabotage Walker’s plan. Democrats in the state senate fled to Illinois. Protesters occupied the state capitol. The fight captured national attention for months in 2011.

The unions lost that battle, but they did not give up the war. They launched an aggressive effort to recall several Republicans in the state senate with the hope of reversing the reforms before it became clear that they were working. They spent heavily—an estimated $30 million—and lost again.

Meanwhile, the results of the changes began coming in. In Milwaukee, the reforms saved some $11 million, an embarrassing windfall for Democratic mayor Tom Barrett, who had predicted that the city’s structural deficit would “explode.” Localities across the state have seen similar savings. There is no disputing the central fact of Walker’s tenure as governor: His reforms are working.

That’s a huge problem for the public employee unions as they try to convince Wisconsinites that the man responsible for this dramatic turnaround should be recalled. So they’re focusing on two other issues: his 2010 campaign and an investigation into the activities of former Walker employees.

Their first complaint is that Walker didn’t campaign on the specific changes he would make to collective bargaining. Walker concedes that there is some truth to the claim. He wasn’t more specific, he says today, because he did not yet know exactly how he would make the changes to collective bargaining. But Walker is conceding too much. He didn’t provide a point-by-point proposal to restrict collective bargaining, but it was no mystery that he’d make dramatic changes. Ryan Murray, a top policy adviser to Walker’s 2010 campaign, made that clear to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in describing the changes to public employee health and retirement benefits. “The way the proposal would work is we would take the choice out of the collective bargaining process,” he said in comments published on August 29, 2010.

Did that mean an end to collective bargaining over benefits? The reporter certainly seemed to think so. “[Murray] said school districts often have some of the most expensive health benefits in Wisconsin and could receive cheaper insurance through the state if they didn’t have to negotiate with unions about who would insure their members.” Christina Brey, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the leading teachers’ union, had the same understanding. “Our members oppose taking away their rights to collective bargaining, so they would definitely raise their voices against it.” Another teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, distributed flyers to its members warning that Walker would “void parts of labor contracts”—something that couldn’t happen without changes to collective bargaining laws.

In light of the success of Walker’s reforms, complaining about what he said in 2010 seems unlikely to win many votes. So Walker’s opponents want to change the subject. Last week, Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic party, toured the state in an attempt to link Walker more closely to an investigation of some of his former employees. Here again, Democrats have resorted to distorting reality in order to smear Walker.

There are two separate issues. In the first, a woman who worked for Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive was found posting political comments on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website during working hours. She resigned in May 2010.

The second involves two former Walker employees who allegedly stole money from a veterans’ organization that worked with the county on an event held at the Milwaukee County Zoo. John Chisholm, Milwaukee’s district attorney, has been investigating the claims for 20 months. There is no indication Walker knew about the employees’ activities, much less condoned them. Chisholm has said that Walker is not a target of the investigation—which only exists because Walker requested it when he was presented with the facts.

Some Wisconsin Republicans, pointing out that Chisholm is a Democrat and highlighting the steady stream of leaks coming from his office, are growing concerned that the investigation is a political witch hunt, designed to bloody the governor before voters cast their ballots. Walker, for his part, says that he believes Chisholm is an “earnest” prosecutor who will conduct a fair investigation. That’s probably overly generous.

The coming battle for Wisconsin will be a difficult fight for Republicans. Democrats have shown that they are willing to do just about anything to win. Unions are fighting this battle as if their very existence depends on a victory—and it might.

For conservatives, the fight is about much more than one man in one state. A Walker defeat would send a message that political courage does not pay and political thuggery does. Walker doesn’t like to talk about the effect the past year has had on him and his family, but it hasn’t been pleasant. He has been subjected to numerous death threats. His wife, Tonette, has been verbally assaulted more times than she can count. His two teenaged boys have been targeted on Facebook. His modest home in Wauwatosa has been the site of several union protests. Last month, a protester outside Walker’s State of the State speech told State Senator John Kleefisch that his wife, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, is a “f—ing whore.”

Walker has been willing to endure these attacks to turn his state around and defend conservative principles. Conservatives should rally behind him.

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