MADISON, Wisconsin — Gov. Scott Walker’s famous brawls with Democrats and labor unions put him on the political map.
But squabbles with fellow Republicans here at the Wisconsin Statehouse are tripping him up as he prepares to formally enter the 2016 presidential race on Monday.
Republicans in Madison have worked overtime in recent weeks to find an elusive deal for the state’s two-year, $73 billion budget. Just a few months ago, Walker optimistically said he would announce his White House plans after he finished all-important budget negotiations. But fights among Republicans over road funding, cuts in higher education spending and a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks delayed talks to a point where Walker had to tamp down that expectation a few weeks ago.
With just five days left before the Walker announcement, the legislature inched toward a deal on Wednesday when the Senate narrowly backed the measure, sending it to the state Assembly for final approval.
And in a rare move that has his fiscal conservative backers frustrated, Walker has been pushing hard to find $250 million for a new arena to keep the Milwaukee Bucks from moving. That effort to include the Bucks deal as part of the bigger budget was scrapped amid concerns that GOP leaders in the legislature would not be able to find enough support from their rank-and-file.
For any governor running for president, it’s a vexing problem. Walker’s brand, like the other governors seeking the White House, is built on the promise that running their home state effectively makes them fit to lead the nation in a way that no senator ever could. But the national focus on Walker, who is scheduled to formally announce his White House bid Monday in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, has shifted recently from what he accomplished between 2011 and 2014 to the intraparty struggles he has faced more recently.
Charles Franklin, a veteran Wisconsin pollster and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said Walker might be a victim of his own success after clearing a litany of top conservative goals from the shelf in Wisconsin. The list includes starting a statewide school voucher program, privatizing the state’s economic development arm (albeit one plagued questionable decisions currently) and making Wisconsin a concealed carry state.
“If you listed all of the things that have passed during Walker’s tenure it’s a long and impressive list,” Franklin said. “The big and bold thing was Act 10 (labor measures from 2011), but to me all of the small ball things matter.”
Walker still sits atop most polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, but that early lead has dwindled somewhat. The Koch brothers, who were among many billionaire donors to Walker’s 2012 recall battle, meanwhile have indicated they will likely wait before throwing their resources behind a single candidate (if they select one at all, this cycle.)
Walker’s meeting with state lawmakers this year hasn’t carried the gravitas of the 2011 national labor fight. But he has pushed for some equally heavy conservative policies, many top priorities for the funders who could carry him through a very crowded Republican field.
In March, Walker signed a controversial “right to work” ban on mandatory union fees. In May, he announced he wanted to repeal the state’s “prevailing wage,” which establishes a minimum wage for construction workers on publicly financed projects. And a few days later, Walker said he would sign a new 20-week ban on abortions, even in cases of rape or incest.
Democrats are quick to point out that during the 2014 election, which Walker won by roughly 6 points, the governor made no mention of his support for any of the explosive issues and was often obtuse, as in an ad where he said that abortion should be a decision between a “woman and her doctor.”
Walker’s office points to myriad accomplishments he’s had, both at the start of his first term and in his latest budget proposal offered this year. Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick pointed out a two-year freeze in student tuition at public universities, drug-testing for welfare recipients and other items this year.
“Since taking office, Governor Walker has bucked the status quo in Wisconsin. His bold, common-sense reforms are about empowering taxpayers and putting them in control. Giving Wisconsinites the freedom to control their own lives creates prosperity for our people, as well as our state,” Patrick wrote in an email.
Behind the scenes at the Wisconsin Capitol, Walker has come under fire for spending too much time on the campaign trail, while major decisions linger.
Walker’s focus on the campaign trail, including high-profile trips abroad to Canada and Israel dubbed “trade missions,” has left the state unattended, said the Wisconsin Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, who has scrapped regularly with Walker throughout his five year’s in the governor’s office.
“You just add up the time he’s been away over the course of the past couple of months, on trade deals, not even to mention his political visits. I bet you he’s been in 15-20 states in the last month alone,” Barca said. “He’s just obviously is not putting much attention here.”
It’s a different governor, Barca said, than the man who pushed through “Act 10” and the major overhaul in labor laws that would eventually make him a national hero among conservatives and Republican donors.
“He was very much hands on, he was here all the time and working it hard and talking to anyone he thought could help him have success,” Barca said. “Wisconsin’s in the rearview mirror, and it’s getting more and more distant by the day.”