West Allis, Wis.

Scott Walker looked relaxed. Dressed in light blue Levi’s jeans, a navy polo shirt, and white and gray Nike sneakers, the Wisconsin governor had just finished speaking at a Sunday morning program honoring veterans, his fourth public event at this year’s Wisconsin State Fair. Walker lingered after the speech, shaking the hand of each active duty servicemember in attendance and snapping photos with well-wishers who had lined up to meet him. “I’ve had corn, and potatoes, and a cattleman’s sandwich, and a Saz’s sandwich, deep-fried chocolate chip cookie bites—just about everything out here,” he said, recounting all that he had indulged in over the past week.

During his last campaign, such simple acts of public politicking were nearly impossible. An angry mob hounded Walker wherever he went. “They shut things down so you couldn’t even hear us during the opening ceremony,” Walker recalled of the state fair in 2011, his first year as governor. These were the same protesters who occupied the capitol building in Madison for weeks. They picketed outside of his family’s home in the Milwaukee suburbs. They even interrupted Walker’s speech honoring the Special Olympics.

But now things are different. Since Walker decisively beat back a recall campaign in 2012, the protesters have retreated. The issue that riled them up—Walker’s battle with public employee unions—has faded almost entirely from public debate. Walker’s Democratic opponent Mary Burke describes herself as a “fiscal conservative” who approves Walker’s decision to require public teachers to pay more toward their pensions and health care in order to balance the state’s budget. When asked, she says she supports restoring collective bargaining rights to public employee unions, but she tries to avoid the issue, and it’s easy to see why.

When I caught up with Burke following her speech to the Manitowoc Chamber of Commerce on August 11, I asked if she could talk about public schools that were harmed by Walker’s collective bargaining reform, passed in 2011 as Act 10. Burke replied with an anecdote about a single school district. “I am concerned about whether we are going to be able to attract and retain and keep good people in our schools,” she said. “And I do see this. A man I talked to not too long ago, Jim from Neenah, was telling me about his daughter who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in education. She had two job offers: one in a school district in Minnesota, one in her hometown of Neenah. Guess which one she’s taking?”

Burke didn’t explain what was so bad about the schools in Neenah, a city of 25,000 people about 40 miles south of Green Bay, but the district certainly isn’t having a hard time finding good teachers in the Walker era. “We probably get a couple hundred applications for every opening,” John Lehman, vice president of the Neenah school board and a Republican, told me. “After Act 10, we increased our starting salary from $34,000 to $40,500.”

Because of Act 10, Lehman said, the district reopened two elementary schools that had been closed after earlier budget cuts. Budget constraints were forcing the district to lay off 10 to 12 teachers each year. How many teachers have been laid off since Walker’s Act 10? “None,” said Lehman. The middle school has even begun offering Chinese language courses.

Neenah’s story is typical of districts across the state: Walker’s reform gave administrators the freedom to make modest changes to benefits and work requirements—most of which Burke says she supports—so they could balance their budgets without firing teachers, raising taxes, or hurting students. It’s little wonder Burke has dropped the issue of Act 10: The law is working.

Despite the fact that Democrats have given up on attacking Walker’s signature legislation—or perhaps because they’ve given up—Walker is now facing the most challenging race of his life. In the absence of a big fight over his successful reform, the campaign has focused almost entirely on personalities and the past. And it seems to be working in Burke’s favor. At the end of August, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Walker and Burke dead even at 47.3 percent each.

Burke’s campaign has relentlessly attacked Walker for falling short of a 2010 pledge that Wisconsin would create 250,000 jobs during his first term. The unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8 percent, but only 100,000 new jobs have materialized. Walker countered by pointing out that when Burke was secretary of commerce under the previous Democratic governor, the state lost 133,000 jobs.

So far, Burke hasn’t detailed how Wisconsin would create more jobs under her leadership. Her “Invest for Success” jobs plan includes such deep insights as the following: “As a businessperson, I know that businesses create jobs.” The 38-page plan is full of vague corporate-speak about how Mary Burke will “strengthen partnerships among companies and local industry associations to drive a cluster-wide strategy,” “leverage our existing international relationships,” “help industry grow and innovate by adopting new technologies,” and “institute continuous improvement initiatives.” Burke never really gets around to saying what legislation will help her accomplish all of this leveraging and innovating. The only new measure she called for during her speech to the Manitowoc Chamber of Commerce was raising the minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25.

There have also been plenty of character attacks. Walker’s TV ads hit Burke, a wealthy former executive of her father’s bicycle company, Trek Bicycle Corporation, for hypocritically shipping jobs to China, where employees work for $2 an hour. Meanwhile, Burke and the media have used details of a campaign finance investigation to raise a cloud of suspicion around Walker.

Following the 2012 recall election, a Democratic prosecutor launched a secret investigation into whether groups that supported Walker had illegally coordinated in violation of state campaign finance law. The investigation, which included predawn raids and the collections of thousands of emails, had so little merit that a federal judge shut it down in May before the prosecutor had decided whether to file any charges. “The theory of ‘coordination’ forming the basis of the investigation, including the basis of probable cause for home raids, is not supported under Wisconsin law and, if it were, would violate the United States Constitution,” wrote Judge Rudolph Randa.

The prosecutor spearheading the investigation even issued a statement saying, “At the time the investigation was halted, Governor Walker was not a target of the investigation.” Nevertheless, the local and national media continue to report breathlessly and ominously on each new batch of documents released as the decision to halt the investigation is appealed before a panel of judges on the Seventh Circuit.

Before the documents started to emerge in May, Walker led Burke by 3 points among likely voters in the Marquette University Law School poll. By August, Burke led Walker by 2 points among likely voters in the Marquette poll but trailed Walker by 3 points among registered voters—a somewhat headscratching result.

“Conventional wisdom and the evidence is that midterm electorates, and in Wisconsin particularly, are less favorable to Democrats,” Marquette professor and pollster Charles Franklin told me. “So anything that shows registered voters more Republican and likely voters more Democratic is an interesting surprise.”

Maybe Walker will regain his edge as voters become more engaged after Labor Day. But it’s also possible that some of his supporters are actually discouraged—by the campaign finance investigation, the defensive aspects of Walker’s campaign, or both.

Walker and his campaign have been pretty much silent on Obamacare, which Wisconsin voters oppose by a 17-point margin. To the extent that the topic is broached, it’s Burke who has taken the offensive, criticizing Walker for rejecting federal funding to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, an issue on which the Democrat enjoys a 29-point advantage.

“I don’t think it becomes a primary issue, but we’re looking at ways to address it, tying it in,” Walker told me during an August 22 interview in Madison. “I think it’s tough for anyone, not just me, in a gubernatorial race” to tie a candidate to Obamacare who neither voted for the law nor can vote to repeal it, he added.

Walker said he hasn’t run ads on the Medicaid issue because it’s an argument Burke has mostly prosecuted in the media, not in her own ads. “If they put points behind it, we’d probably counter back,” Walker said. “We’d point out two-fold: one, that Mary Burke wants to dramatically expand Obamacare, which I think would fly in the face of most voters here. Secondly, that if anybody actually thinks the federal government’s going to fulfill a commitment on Medicaid when they have $17 trillion debt, they already have a track record with seniors of reneging on commitments, they’re living in an alternative universe.”

It’s a tough fight to win, given the Democratic tilt of the state, which Obama won by 14 points in 2008 and 7 points in 2012. Almost every other Republican governor of blue or swing states—including Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—supported Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

But Walker has a positive story to tell on Medicaid. By pushing about 57,000 Wisconsinites above the poverty level onto the Obamacare exchanges, the state was able to cover more than 97,000 people below the poverty level who had been denied Medicaid coverage because of a cap. “The Kaiser Family Foundation, which is certainly not conservative, fairly reputable on health care, said that Wisconsin’s the only state in the country that didn’t take the Medicaid expansion that has no insurance gap,” Walker said. “For the first time ever, we’re covering everyone living in poverty.”

While a counteroffensive on Obamacare from the Walker campaign remains uncertain, the governor insists that an effort to revive the debate over property taxes and Act 10 is on the way. “The only real reason that most people’s property taxes have gone down is our Act 10 reforms,” Walker said. “The only way those Act 10 reforms are repealed outright or chipped away is if Burke is elected.”

The tax issue would certainly provide a needed illustration of what’s at stake in this race for Wisconsin voters. Burke claims she’s a fiscal conservative whose goal is to lower property taxes” and that she’s “particularly concerned about the very high property taxes across the state.” But following her Chamber of Commerce speech, Burke suggested that Wisconsin’s property tax caps are “strangling our communities” and signaled she would work to raise the caps if elected.

“Property taxes in Wisconsin are high. And what we need to do is look for how we’re going to, again, grow our economy. That’s the best way to bring taxes down. But also strangling our communities isn’t actually going to make sure that we’re competitive,” Burke said. She did not indicate how much she would raise Wisconsin’s tax cap on municipalities and counties, saying only that she would “work with our communities to understand what is a reasonable level.”

During Walker’s first term, property taxes went down for the first time in over a decade, and Walker has pledged that if reelected, “property taxes on a typical home will be lower in 2018 than they are this year (which means they will be lower than they were in 2010).”

If Walker wins his third gubernatorial election in Wisconsin this November, he will be well positioned to be a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He’s admired by both the Republican base and the donor class for his fight against public employee unions and hasn’t angered any particular faction of the GOP yet. His position on immigration is still vague and his foreign policy not fully formed.

Walker seems understandably reluctant to wade into divisive federal issues in the midst of a state election. He didn’t take a stance on congressional reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, for example, which many conservatives see as a prime example of crony capitalism. Walker said he has “concerns” about President Obama’s potential executive amnesty of 5 million illegal immigrants, but didn’t have much else to say about the issue.

When I asked him what should be done about the Islamic State, he didn’t provide any specific answers. “I think it points to the larger question that many of us are concerned about, that we don’t have an adequate place of leadership in the world,” Walker said. He then began talking about Ronald Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers as an example

of leadership and the “beginning of the end of the Cold War, because our allies saw this guy was serious and they could count on him. And our adversaries saw this guy was serious and they’re not going to mess with him.”

Walker remains undecided on more recent historical events. Was it a mistake for the United States to pull out all troops from Iraq? “I know not to make observations without having the full access to the generals,” Walker said. “I don’t know that I could make a qualified judgment without having a larger base of knowledge.”

Walker will, of course, have plenty of time to discuss how he’d lead the country if he seeks the presidency. He’s already clearly given some thought to common critiques of a potential Walker candidacy.

Walker has said many times before that Republicans need to nominate a governor for president in 2016. But as the world falls apart, won’t voters want someone with experience in foreign policy? “I think the two senators who handled foreign policy in this administration, the president and the former secretary of state, both did an abysmal job of handling foreign affairs during this administration,” Walker replied, adding, “that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came out of the Senate suggests to me that it didn’t provide any value.”

“It’s really about leadership. Any of these things boil right down to leadership,” he declared.

So is the Wisconsin governor poised to become a compelling leader on the national stage? One common knock against him is that he lacks charisma. Earlier this summer, Walker told donors in New Jersey that the 2016 presidential race has to be about issues and ideas, not personality. “If it’s a personality race, you got a third Clinton term,” Walker told the crowd, according to National Review’s Eliana Johnson.

But isn’t it true, I asked Walker at the end of our interview, that the more charismatic presidential candidate almost always wins? Walker didn’t dispute the hypothesis, but argued that charisma is about much more than one’s oratorical skills. “In any election, be it for mayor, governor, anything else out there, I think there’s a certain appeal that people have for candidates who are authentic, people who have a passion for ideas and who believe in things,” he said. “We say what we mean, we mean what we say. I think that’s certainly appealing. I hope in this election that’s true. And I hope it’s true in other elections.”

John McCormack is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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