In 2004, after two years on the job, Walker was elected to a full four-year term with 57 percent of the vote. People began to take notice in state political circles: Here was a thirtysomething Republican getting things done in lefty Milwaukee. His name began to be bandied about as a possible challenger to Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who was up for reelection in 2006.
Meanwhile, Walker continued to roil the Left with his streamlined county budgets. “People would sit in the chambers when I presented my budgets, where the people could sit right there in the chamber of the county board. I’d have whole sections of the gallery filled with AFSCME leaders in green shirts holding up signs that read ‘Negotiate, don’t dictate.’ So I have great credibility when I talk about the need to change collective bargaining. I saw firsthand how the unions thumbed their noses at local elected officials.”
“We are not budging — that is the unions’ mindset,” Walker sighs. “Even if you wanted modest changes in health-care and pension contributions, you could not get it. One year, I even tried a 35-hour workweek for a couple weeks and they told me to forget it. ‘Go lay people off,’ they said, ‘you’ll be gone soon enough. We may not get our people back, but our benefits won’t be reduced.’ They had no interest in doing anything reasonable with local officials.”
By 2005, Walker’s profile was rising and he began to look seriously at a gubernatorial bid. “I saw my state falling apart,” he says. He saw Governor Doyle vulnerable on his signature issue: the budget. So he joined the year-long primary race, battling Mark Green, a U.S. congressman, for the Republican nomination. To Walker’s chagrin, his campaign never caught on. Maybe it was the low enthusiasm on the right, maybe it was just a Democratic year. But fundraising was a daily struggle and his fiscal-hawk message did not have its usual resonance. By March 2006, Walker had faced the looming truth and decided to drop out of the race. For an ambitious young pol, it was a painful experience — his first statewide campaign ended with a whimper.
“I had a ton of supporters all across this state and I did not want to let them down,” Walker says. “But in the end I told them that I prayed about it, thought about it a lot, and in the end realized it was the right thing to do. I thought God had called me to get in the race, but I thought God also called me to get out.”
By quitting the primary and avoiding an outright loss, Walker may have saved his political career. He quickly endorsed Green, whom he had been rough on for months, and established himself as more than a brash county leader: Scott Walker was also a team player. “Little did I know, years later, the wisdom in all of that,” he says. “As usual, God’s grace was much better than anything I could have planned. Sometimes if you do God’s will, it’s interesting how it opens doors you’d never imagine.”
Politically bruised but not broken, Walker returned to Milwaukee. In the Year of Obama, he soundly won reelection again with nearly 60 percent of the vote. In that race, he used many of the themes that he would employ in 2010. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel predicted on election night, “the issues he stressed in his county executive race — crime, as well as taxes and privatization — could easily dovetail with a GOP governor’s race template.”
With one aborted run under his belt, and many lessons learned, Walker decided to run for governor again in early 2009. He announced his campaign in April, just as the Tea Party movement was beginning to stir in pockets around Wisconsin. He also assembled a crack team of operatives to help build a path to the nomination, with more fundraising prowess and political savvy than his 2006 campaign. Keith Gilkes, a sharp state-senate hand, came on as campaign manager; R. J. Johnson, a former executive director for the state party, joined as a consultant; Mary Stitt and Dan Morse, two top money bundlers with ties to former governor Tommy Thompson, were enlisted. So was Brian Tringali, Thompson’s top pollster. This was a team that knew how to win.