JANESVILLE, Wis. – Not long ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was the voice of a conservative revolution in the heartland, a Republican at the vanguard and a possible future president. Today, he’s the voice of concern, warning his party – at home and nationally – that change is coming again.
In private meetings, public forums and his own policy moves, Walker has made clear he sees worrisome signs for the GOP and the hard-line conservatism that’s marked his eight years in office. Wisconsin, which helped hand the White House to Republicans, is looking for something different, Walker has said, and Democrats are motivated.
A recent local election should be a “wake-up call” to the changes afoot in the rural and exurban pockets that 17 months ago voted enthusiastically for President Donald Trump, he recently told a group of GOP donors and activists.
Walker is acting on his own advice. As he seeks a third term in office, he’s embraced a bipartisan tone and a strikingly moderate set of policy proposals. The man who eight years ago set out to dismantle public employee unions is now backing efforts that mirror aspects of former President Barack Obama’s health care law and describing his policy differences with Democrats as modest.
“We heard from people across the state. These aren’t Republican or Democrat issues. These are things people care about in Wisconsin,” Walker told the Associated Press in a recent interview. “As a Republican, I might have a slightly different angle about how to address it. But these are (about) just me listening to people across the state.”
Walker’s concerns about the mood of white working-class voters resonate beyond Wisconsin and could easily translate to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania – Rust Belt states that Trump won and that could go a long way toward determining who controls Congress next year.
As a battle-tested Republican from such a state, and who shares the ballot this fall with Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Walker is worth heeding, said Matt Brooks, executive director of the national Republican Jewish Coalition.
“There are a lot of winds aloft that could have impacts on the broader electoral outlook,” Brooks said.
Walker knows something about misjudging the resilience of a political moment.
Riding the tea-party wave and anti-union fervor, Walker got national attention for his push to strip public employee unions of bargaining power, in a state that first encoded such rights 50 years earlier.
Tens of thousands of teachers, prison guards and other public employees demonstrated in the Capitol, and Walker beat back a recall effort, receiving 200,000 more votes than he did in his election win less than two years earlier. Walker tried to use the platform to launch a presidential bid, but his campaign quickly fizzled. By early November 2016, he was at Trump’s side at a campaign stop in northwest Wisconsin.
Walker sounded different at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas last month. Behind closed doors, he pointed to a special election upset in Wisconsin this year in the typically Republican, small-town lake lands of northwest Wisconsin, members attending later described. Trump had carried the state Senate district by 17 percentage points.
Walker attributed the stunning reversal in a district of middle- and lower-income white voters in the St. Croix River valley northeast of Minneapolis to Democratic anger with Trump, and wider frustration with the largely stalled agenda in the GOP-controlled Congress.
While a crowded field of Democrats is seeking to oust Walker, it’s not yet clear whether he faces a difficult re-election path. But his concerns echo far beyond Wisconsin, said Michael Epstein of Maryland, who was on Walker’s presidential finance team and heard Walker’s presentation in Las Vegas.
“We’re all looking to the midterms with concern,” Epstein said.
Months before the January special election in Wisconsin, Walker began preparing for a different political mood in 2018.
Walker, who fought implementation of Obama’s 2010 health care law, is now proposing shoring up the private health insurance market. He also wants to ban policy denials for people with pre-existing conditions, a popular provision of Obama’s signature law.
Other Democrat-friendly policies he’s promoting include protecting Wisconsin’s popular SeniorCare discount prescription drug program, bolstering funding for schools and sending families $100 for each child younger than 18. The money would arrive in late summer, just before the fall election.
In the wake of last month’s high school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, Walker came out against arming teachers, something he previously was open to.
Walker’s tack to the middle shows how some swing state Republicans are positioning themselves differently given Trump’s low approval and a president’s party historically losing seats in the first midterm election. By contrast, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller has worked to thaw his once-icy relationship with Trump by championing common policy priorities. Heller faces a primary challenge in a state Trump narrowly lost in 2016.
Democrats say Walker is stealing their best ideas, can’t be trusted to follow through on them if he is re-elected and hoping moderate voters forget his conservative record.
“In trying to win a third term, Scott Walker is campaigning as if his first two terms did not exist,” said Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
While Walker hasn’t abandoned priorities such as cutting taxes and offering big tax breaks to industry, his focus on swing voters stands in glaring contrast to his first presidential campaign video in 2015, in which he said his GOP rivals “haven’t consistently taken on the big fights” and boasted, “I know how to fight and win.”
Today he doesn’t declare victory.
“In the end, we’re a blue state and, at best, we made it purple,” Walker told AP.
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