Politics & Policy

Wisconsin Turns GOP

Republicans have a chance to govern.

The GOP earned a momentous victory on November 2 by taking back the House of Representatives and making considerable gains in the Senate. However, most agree that significant reform is on hold until at least 2012, when Republicans can potentially win control of both houses and the White House. In some parts of the country, such a dramatic power shift has already taken place, and could offer instructive insights into an effective GOP strategy for 2012 and beyond.

Consider Wisconsin, a state President Obama won by 13 points. On November 2, it experienced the biggest party shift in the country, switching from unified Democratic control to unified Republican control. Scott Walker cruised to victory in the gubernatorial race to succeed outgoing governor Jim Doyle (D), and Republicans won significant majorities in both houses of the state legislature. In national races, the GOP picked up two House seats and knocked off three-term liberal icon Sen. Russ Feingold.

#ad#Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican party of Wisconsin, tells National Review Online that the GOP’s success in the state could “certainly [be] a model for others to follow.” Like most states, Wisconsin has suffered economically over the past few years. “We’ve got some big problems here,” Priebus says. However, he is optimistic that the message voiced by voters on Election Day — less spending, less government — was so loud and clear that “I don’t think there’s any danger of the Republican-led legislature not listening.” (One might say the same about emboldened GOP members of the U.S. House and Senate, though the recent hiccup over an earmark moratorium in the Senate does not exactly inspire confidence.)

All eyes will be on Walker, who is widely considered a rising star in the Republican party, as he helms a unified Republican government to address the struggling economy. He has wasted no time: Though he doesn’t take office until January 3, last week he sent a hand-delivered letter to Dan Schooff, secretary of Doyle’s department of administration, requesting that a number of items be put on hold until the new government is sworn in. In the letter, which has caused a stir, Walker urged the outgoing governor to halt implementation of Obamacare in Wisconsin, as he intends to have Republican attorney general J. B. Van Hollen join the multistate lawsuit challenging the law.

Walker has also asked Doyle to stop negotiations with state workers over 2009–11 contracts so they can be considered as part of the upcoming state budget (and hence be on the table for spending cuts), and called for a freeze on civil-service hiring. He even requested that plans for a biomass boiler at the University of Wisconsin–Madison be scrapped in favor of a boiler that runs on natural gas, a move he says could save the state $100 million.

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Kenneth R. Mayer, political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says Walker’s actions might seem contentious in the context of previous gubernatorial transitions, but they are hardly surprising given the circumstances. “As an incoming governor with unified control of the legislature, it’s only natural that [Walker] would want to maximize his discretion,” Mayer says. “He doesn’t want his hands to be tied.” Walker has said he is not trying to pick a fight with the Doyle administration.

Walker campaigned on a message of fiscal restraint and limited government, promising to govern in accordance with three basic principles — what he calls his “Brown Bag Guide to Government”: 1) Don’t spend more than you have. 2) Smaller government is better government. 3) People create jobs, not government. By lowering the tax burden on businesses and cutting government spending, Walker boldly pledged to create 250,000 new jobs and 10,000 new businesses in Wisconsin by 2015.

#ad#He will have his work cut out for him. Wisconsin is facing a $3 billion deficit, and currently ranks 40th in the State Business Tax Climate Index. For Walker, the stakes are exceedingly high, Mayer says, with “drastic” cutbacks likely to be required. “There are no easy choices, no easy cuts,” Mayer says. “We’re talking closing prisons, eliminating entire departments; we’re not at the point of closing down universities, but that’s the scale of what we’re facing.”

But Walker has shown no signs of a weak stomach when it comes to cutbacks. He is holding firm at his current position as Milwaukee county executive, which he will hold until the end of the year. He recently vetoed 15 amendments to his 2011 budget proposal that would have added $10 million to the budget. His vocal opposition to a federally funded $810 million high-speed rail line from Madison to Milwaukee — Walker says the state simply cannot afford the millions of dollars in annual subsidies the project would require — has not surprisingly garnered comparisons to New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whom Walker cites as “the primo example of how you turn government around.” Also in Christie’s mold, Walker has expressed a determination to take on public-sector employees and require them to make greater contributions to their benefits and pension plans.

One day after winning the election, Walker said it was “put up or shut up time” for newly elected Republicans, echoing the sentiment of many national GOP leaders. If Walker and his Republican legislature are successful, that bodes well not only for his own political fortunes, but also for those of the GOP in 2012. (Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reagan in 1984.)

The GOP’s success in the Badger State already has Priebus’s name being floated as a potential successor to Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. Party leaders would be wise to keep a close eye on Wisconsin in the months and years to come.

— Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Onlines Battle ’10 blog.

Andrew Stiles — Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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