With his presidential campaign behind him, it’s time for Gov. Scott Walker to fix his brand, Wisconsin insiders say.
And the political pros have plenty of suggestions how to do it:
Get back in the good graces of Wisconsinites, who recently have awarded him upside-down poll ratings.
Be an effective surrogate for the eventual GOP nominee.
Create an agenda that reinforces the argument that he gets things done.
“He’s going to go back to doing what he did before,” said longtime GOP strategist Mark Graul. “That’s focus on implementing common-sense conservative reforms in Wisconsin that get the notice and the attention of the whole country.”
Walker built his campaign for the presidency on the premise that he’s a fighter who was "unintimidated" by anyone, a reference to his book title. But his repeated missteps on the trail undercut that argument as voters saw him flip flop on issues. He took multiple positions on birthright citizenship in just one week, said building a wall along the Canadian border was a “legitimate issue” and remarked that taking on 100,000 Capitol protesters meant his was prepared to fight ISIS.
Along the way, a campaign rapidly built up to match his status as a frontrunner burned money at an unsustainable rate as donations started to track with his falling poll numbers.
Now, Walker faces questions of how he can boost his ratings at home while being relevant nationally if he’s interested in making another bid for the presidency.
The conventional wisdom has been that Walker won't seek a third term in 2018, meaning he would need a bridge between leaving the guv’s office and firing up another presidential run.
Should a Republican win the White House next year, Walker could join the cabinet. But that would also mean he wouldn’t have another chance to run until 2024, a long time to be out of the public eye.
But if Dems continue to hold onto the White House, Walker could leave office early in 2019 and take the time to deepen his grasp on foreign policy and other domestic issues outside his comfort zone before another presidential run. That could be an attractive alternative to the cram sessions Walker had leading up to this bid, particularly after he spent 2014 preoccupied with his gubernatorial re-election campaign.
Before that, Walker may need to mend some fences with the legislative Republicans.
The budget process was contentious at times. And some lawmakers balked when the guv said on the campaign trail he had to take on the GOP establishment back home to push through collective bargaining changes, describing some legislators as hesitant to take on the status quo.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos downplayed those rifts, saying to Walker’s credit he corrected his initial re-telling of the effort to pass the collective bargaining changes. He said Walker will likely benefit from getting back in the public eye in Wisconsin to remind voters of the things he’s accomplished since taking office.
“Gov. Walker has spent more time out of the state. I’ve heard some complaining about that, and I’m not going to lie,” the Rochester Republican said. “But I think that many of those will fall by the wayside as he re-engages with Wisconsin, talks about all the issues important to him, just like he’s done really for the past four years.”
Speculation has been rampant for weeks on whether Walker would finish his term regardless of how the presidential race played out. Insiders have also questioned whether Walker would be engaged in the 2017-19 budget, for example, and interested in dealing with the transportation fund after having a taste of the national spotlight.
And if he's assembling that next budget, some have speculated it could be as difficult as the one lawmakers finished in July because he would still want to sign a fiscally conservative document that would position him well in a GOP primary. That would mean no gas tax or fee hikes for the transportation fund, a source of friction with some Republican lawmakers.
Joint Finance Co-Chair John Nygren said he didn’t think tensions would linger between the guv and his caucus. Looking to the next budget, the Marinette Republican also didn’t expect a problem on things like the transportation fund, “if his intention is to solve the problem.”
“If the answer is no and continue down the road without addressing the issue, then there will be tension,” Nygren said. “My biggest frustration of the budget was we didn’t solve that issue.”
One Walker supporter had a simple answer to mending bridges with GOP lawmakers.
“They all need fundraisers, don’t they?” the supporter said. “Nothing says I’m sorry like money.”
The postmortem being written nationally on Walker has focused on his verbal stumbles. They became a particular problem after lackluster debate performances and dropping poll numbers prompted nervous donors to start calling for a staff shakeup.
Minnesota media mogul Stanley Hubbard was one of Walker’s top donors and sometimes channeled messages to the guv through the media.
Hubbard said he called Walker on Friday to suggest he meet with some consultants to sharpen his presentation. He noted voters in Wisconsin came to know Walker personally because of his extensive travels in the state, and he connected with them. That came across in the TV reports he watched on Walker from the Twin Cities.
But Walker lacked star power on national TV and, like it or not, that’s something candidates need in this environment. Donald Trump has it, Hubbard said, Walker does not.
“I’d go to acting school and learn how to really perform,” Hubbard said. “That doesn’t mean you change what you say, just how you say it.”
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson noted he is likely the only person in Wisconsin who can relate to what Walker is now going through, dropping his own bid for the presidency in 2007 after money troubles and issues gaining traction in Iowa.
He had a simple piece of advice for Walker: “take two weeks off.”
Thompson said once Walker has time to get over the disappointment of dropping out of the race, he should re-introduce himself to Wisconsin by traveling the state extensively.
Beyond that, Thompson said Walker had any number of options ahead of him, whether it’s running for re-election in 2018, taking a stab at the U.S. Senate or finding something in the private sector. Thompson declined to say what Walker should do to have the best foundation for a possible second run at the presidency. Still, Thompson noted he ran at the wrong time after being out of office for seven years and should have mounted a bid in 1996 or 2000, when he would have been a stronger candidate.
“Scott Walker ran at the right time,” Thompson said. “He was at the top of his game. He had the highest publicity. He was the leader of the pack for a long time. How many people can get a chance to say when I announced, I was No. 1?"