Scott Walker is already thinking about how to defeat Hillary Clinton. “You gotta move it from a personality race, because if it’s a personality race, you got a third Clinton term,” the Wisconsin governor told a lunchtime crowd of about 30 last Tuesday assembled at the Lakewood, N.J., home of Rich Roberts, one of his biggest financial backers. “The only way we win that election is to transform her personality to Washington versus the rest of us. Senator Clinton is all about Washington, everything about her is all about Washington.”
Walker is up for reelection in November — his third time on the ballot in four years, he likes to point out — but it is almost certainly his presidential ambitions that brought him to the Orthodox Jewish enclave of Lakewood, where he toured the town’s yeshiva and lunched with Roberts and his friends. Roberts has always donated to Republicans, but after selling his pharmaceutical company for $800 million in 2012, he began pouring a lot more money into the coffers of GOPers, including Walker, Senator Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Senator Rand Paul (Ky.), and former Florida congressman Allen West.
With Walker at his side, Roberts recounted receiving threatening e-mails after donating $50,000 to ward off Walker’s recall from the governorship. “With three days to go until the election, now I’m receiving all these threats, so what am I going to do? I wired him another $50,000,” Roberts said to laughter and applause.
As Walker shook hands, posed for pictures, and spoke to the group gathered in Roberts’s dining room and an adjoining room — men and women separated by a wall, as is sometimes customary among Orthodox Jews — the broad outlines of a campaign platform were clear. In a 20-minute speech and a question-and-answer session that followed, he touted his expansion of school vouchers to religious institutions, cited his victory on tort reform, and recounted staring down Wisconsin’s public-sector unions and the protesters who stormed the state on their behalf.
You could see him taking subtle shots at his potential rivals. The governor took a swipe at his friend Chris Christie on Christie’s home turf, touting his own success reducing property taxes in Wisconsin after a decade of steady increases. New Jersey’s astronomical property taxes are notorious, and Christie, who has a full-blown budget crisis on his hands right now, has done little to address the problem.
On foreign policy, Walker positioned himself firmly in the establishment camp, dismissing arguments that Republican voters want to see the United States reduce its engagement with the world. “I don’t believe that,” he said. Without naming him specifically, he rejected the idea that Kentucky senator Rand Paul has captured the hearts and minds of Republican voters on matters of foreign policy. “I believe fundamentally the reason why many young voters are suspect about foreign policy and the wars and many things like that is that they just haven’t been properly administered,” he said.
Walker also threw some elbows at Washington Republicans, criticizing them for harping on issues like the debt and the deficit without offering a positive vision for the future. “We have to be optimistic,” he said. He pointed to a particular senator who “constantly talks about how horrible the debt is.” Walker said that, while he shares the sentiment, the issue has limited popular appeal. At times, he said that listening to the senator harping on it makes him “want to slit my wrists because I’m just like, ‘My God, this is so awful, I cannot believe this.’”
The Obama administration, of course, came in for the harshest judgments. Walker accused the president of relying on his “political shop” to make decisions of national and global import. He cited the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five high-profile Taliban prisoners: “I think what happened with the exchange — remember that movie years ago, Wag the Dog?” He fears, he said, that Obama’s political advisers — trying to cope with the political flak over the ongoing scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs — jumped at the opportunity to make the exchange happen, without clearing the decision with the secretaries of state and defense, who would have put the brakes on such a deal.
As Walker was garnering applause from the lunch crowd, the aides he had in tow were getting less positive feedback. Though operating on friendly turf, they acted skittish, guarded, and unfriendly. An event organizer complained that the governor’s team was dismissive and difficult to deal with, and that she found it nearly impossible to get Walker on the phone with his host.
Since Walker rose to national prominence when he faced down the unions in 2011, Republican donors have admired his steeliness, his calm, and his quiet resolve. But they have privately wondered whether he has the star power and political judgment necessary to succeed on the presidential level. This event offered a small sample size, but maybe the donors also need to wonder about his team. After all, Walker was less than 40 miles from Trenton, where the man who just six months ago seemed to have an inside track for front-runner status in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination had his fortunes reversed by his own aides.
Walker brought a national message to this gathering at a top donor’s home, an indication of the seriousness of his presidential ambitions. For the time being, Hillary Clinton is sucking up all the media oxygen. For three days last week, the Drudge Report featured a photograph of a pregnant Chelsea Clinton in leather pants over a headline about the $600,000 salary she earned at NBC News. The low-key Wisconsin governor is a stark contrast to that flashiness, and he is hoping a wholesome Midwesterner becomes Hillary Clinton’s worst political nightmare.
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.