Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is leading some presidential-primary polls among Republican candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. He was elected in 2010, and quickly drew national attention when he signed legislation to reduce the collective-bargaining privileges of public-sector unions.
He prevailed in that struggle, beat back an attempt to recall him from office and became a hero to conservatives nationally in the process. Last year, he won re-election in a state that hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential race for 30 years.
Walker’s fans think his record of enacting conservative legislation, getting re-elected in a blue state and overcoming fierce opposition recommend him as a presidential nominee. They also think that he has blue-collar appeal: He has done better among people making less than $50,000 a year, and people without college degrees, than Mitt Romney did in Wisconsin in 2012. And he’s acceptable to all factions of the Republican Party, which can’t be said of everyone who is likely to run for president.
Whether his current lead can last will depend on the answer to six questions. Call them our known unknowns:
▪ Can he raise the money it takes to run a national campaign?
Because of the recall election, Walker ran three times in four years, and built a national base of donors in the process. Or did he? Some of those donors may have fervently wanted him to win his fight against the Democrats and public-sector unions, but would also prefer other Republicans for president.
▪ To what extent will Walker run on a policy agenda, and what will that agenda be?
His national reputation is tied to his position on labor law. He could use that to run as a union-buster, or he could use it to run as someone who wants government to work for taxpayers and not for its own employees. If he chooses the latter course, he'll need a broader agenda to illustrate the theme. Similarly, he faces a choice between trying to appeal to middle-class voters based on his biography alone — unlike the last few Republican nominees, he isn’t a rich guy — or based on policies that benefit those voters.
▪ Can he keep his fans as he goes national?
As governor, Walker has mostly been able to stay out of national debates. Take immigration. His current supporters include hard-line foes of amnesty for unauthorized immigrants as well as people who think the party needs to soften its position. Can he find a way to take a stand without alienating one side or the other? And how disillusioned will conservatives be when they find out the compromises that Walker, like any governor, has made?
▪ Will he fill the stage?
A recurring knock on Walker has been that he lacks charisma. Maybe so. But he seems to have impressed Iowa Republicans in a recent appearance with other potential candidates. And it may be that he can project a solidity and competence that can substitute for glamour.
▪ How will voters respond to Walker’s lack of a college degree?
It’s hard to predict in the absence of a recent historical precedent. Walker left school early because he found a good job, which was the reason that he, like most students, went to college in the first place. Most voters don’t have college degrees. Some, even those with degrees themselves, may find it refreshing to have a candidate who does not; some, even those without degrees, may find it worrisome.
▪ When will other candidates try to take him down?
There’s a chance that Walker could run up the middle in the primaries, while candidates positioned to his left fight over moderate Republican voters and candidates to his right fight over conservatives. Alternatively, all of those candidates will beat him up because he’s competing with them for both groups of voters.
His early, albeit narrow, lead in some polls raises the likelihood of this second scenario.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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