Proving that a little more than a year is a long time in politics, Republicans who may have an eye on 2016 have begun to descend on Iowa, where 16 months ago Republican voters ventured from their homes to take part in the first party caucus of the 2012 presidential election. At the time, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was struggling for his political life in a battle against public-sector labor unions, but since then he has emerged as an A-list presidential candidate for 2016.
Walker was in Des Moines on Thursday night speaking to a dinner held by the Polk County Republican party, fueling speculation that the Wisconsin governor is aiming for higher office in 2016. Walker, who faces reelection to his current position in 2014, has been giving speeches around the country, with three out-of-state stops this week alone. At $75 per plate, the dinner in Iowa sold out, with over 800 in attendance.
Cindy Shields, from nearby Johnston, said before Walker’s speech that she has a “very favorable” opinion of the Wisconsin governor, praising his willingness to take on the public unions. “He stood up for what he thought was right to make their state better,” said Shields’s husband, Dan.
Prior to Walker’s talk, Norm Pawlewski of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition said that he knew “virtually nothing” about him besides the union controversy, but he saw Walker as ”a guy that won’t fade when the going gets tough.” Pawlewski wanted to know more about Walker’s stands on issues such as immigration, abortion, and gay marriage but found him to be ”obviously a viable candidate” for president, adding that he’s “articulate, he looks good, and speaks well.”
During his 40-minute speech, Walker mostly steered clear of social issues, although he thanked Iowans for praying for him during his recall election in 2012. Walker emphasized his Iowa upbringing, noting that he had lived in the state from 1970 to 1977 when his father was a pastor in Plainfield.
While the crowd dined on chicken, Walker used his experiences in Wisconsin to paint a larger vision, saying he had “some thoughts, not just for Iowa and Wisconsin, but where we as Republicans and, in turn, where we as a country should go moving forward.”
Flanked by two large video screens, Walker emphasized three main points that he says will better the Republican party. First, he said, the party needs to provide optimism. Merely attacking your opponent isn’t enough, he pointed out, arguing that conservatives need to put forward positive plans for voters to consider.
Walker also made the case that Republicans need to be more relevant, which means “going to places that we as Republicans don’t typically go.” He noted that he was elected three times as Milwaukee County executive and that he won every one of the majority-Hispanic wards in the city of Milwaukee. He called the idea that the GOP can’t reach out to women, young voters, or ethnic minorities “nonsense.”
Walker concluded his speech by urging Republicans to be more courageous, pointing to many of the reforms he has implemented in Wisconsin with regard to unions, food stamps, and health care. “I call it moving people from government dependence to true independence,” Walker said of his reforms. He defended his recent plan to require citizens on food stamps to be enrolled in a job-training program, saying, “I’m not making it harder to get assistance, I’m making it easier to get a job.” His opponents, he said, “measure success by measuring the number of people who are dependent on government. We should measure success by how many people are not.”
Undoubtedly, Walker’s Iowa speech will be one of many that Republicans in Polk County will hear in the next two years. “We have a pretty good screening process here,” said a smiling Pawlewski. “We get their number before the caucuses.”