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UPDATE: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced Monday morning on Twitter that he is running for the Republican nomination for president, saying, “I’m in. I’m running for president because Americans deserve a leader who will fight and win for them.”
Walker will give a speech kicking off his campaign Monday evening in Waukesha, Wis., becoming one of seven current or former Republican governors to enter the 2016 race — and the only one to survive a recall election in his own state.
That history has shaped Walker’s national name identification, making him a figure of controversy on the left and giving him a structural political advantage — in the shape of a vast donor base — on the right.
During his tenure as governor, Walker successfully neutered unions in Wisconsin. He eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees in 2011 and withstood protests and a backlash and recall effort in 2012 that might have undone his work. Then, in March 2015, Walker signed right-to-work legislation that gave all workers in unionized industries the choice of whether or not to join or contribute to unions, which had been able to require workers to pay fees in return for benefiting from union’s collective bargaining power on wages, benefits and hours. It was a stunning turn of events for a state largely credited with starting America’s union movement in 1847, and the first state to provide its public workers with collective bargaining rights.
Walker’s dramatic push to change the economic fabric of the state came at the peak of the tea party wave, and the pushback by unions and Democrats only served to galvanize GOP donors across the country to come to Walker’s defense. Walker raised more than $37.2 million for his own campaign committee and outside GOP groups spent more than $58.7 million to keep him in office — with much of the money coming from big donors who faced few fundraising limits because of special rules that apply to Wisconsin’s recall elections.
In a national race where GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush and his allies already have amassed a $114 million war chest, Walker’s preexisting donor relationships and fundraising efforts could make him one of the most formidable challengers for the nomination. (Not to mention that Walker is reportedly the favorite candidate of Charles and David Koch, the Republican political megadonors.) His high profile all but guarantees Walker — a late entrant to what his entry makes a 15-candidate GOP field — a spot in the upcoming 10-candidate GOP debates, where the field is determined by polling, and early polling relies largely on whether voters have even heard of a candidate.
But there were some drawbacks to Walker’s vast fundraising in the recall election, beyond Democrats’ ongoing frustration over policies they say are wrong for the state. The now two-term governor is currently under investigation by a Milwaukee-based Democratic district attorney for improper political coordination in the effort to keep his job in the recall.
In March, Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff uncovered a secret $1.5 million donation to a Walker-aligned political group from the Badger State’s hardware store magnate John Menard Jr. — a billionaire not well-known in Republican party donor circles, but an example of the kind of backers Walker could draw as he continues through the primary.
But money is just what puts Walker in the 2016 game; it is his conservative record that could keep him there.
Walker’s first big policy fight — to eliminate collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s state workers in 2011 — led to a dramatic weekslong standoff between the governor and the legislature’s Democrats, who literally fled the state to Illinois to keep the state’s assembly from having a quorum to vote on Walker’s plans while protestors flooded the Capitol.
By 2015, Walker made Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state in the nation, hammering one of the last nails in the coffin for Big Labor in the state, where union membership has dropped 3 points since Walker took office. During that same time, Wisconsin’s economy has grown, though at a slower rate than most Midwestern states.
Walker also has drawn serious criticism from educators. Among the first serious demonstrators against the 2011 anti-union effort were public school teachers, who closed down Madison schools so they could protest the end of collective bargaining at the Capitol building.
Walker again sparked protests with his most recent budget in February by proposing a 13 percent cut in aid for the Wisconsin university system, or about $300 million in cuts over the next two years for 13 four-year colleges. He also has proposed getting rid of university tenure, much to the chagrin of university professors.
Though many Republican candidates claim that they slashed spending, Walker has one of the clearest records to present that he has done what he campaigned to do in Wisconsin. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, plans to make his record of budget-tightening and entitlement reforms a cornerstone of his campaign — but his record as governor of the state, which has seen its credit rating downgraded nine times under his watch, is less clear. Christie resorted to many of the same budget gimmicks that helped his predecessors achieve the state-mandated balanced budget versus going through with the level of cuts embraced by Walker. Wisconsin’s credit rating on the other hand, even if Democrats in the state disagree with how Walker got it there, is stable.
In the lead-up to his formal announcement, Walker has focused more on conservative social issues than on his fiscal record, even going so far as to call for a Constitutional amendment to allow states to buck the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage across the country.
Several Republican aides tracking the early primary season suggest Walker is trying to position himself as an establishment-money-backed Republican who social conservatives also can support, an approach that could give him momentum in an early primary state like Iowa.
To the extent that Walker talks about the economy in his speech Monday evening and how he would govern, there’s one thing his governorship has made clear: What voters hear is likely to be what they’ll get.