The most important election in the country yesterday was the gubernatorial race in Wisconsin. In its historic implications, Scott Walker’s victory was on a par with the GOP’s winning control of the Senate, arguably as important as all the other gubernatorial and congressional elections put together. And the reasons have nothing to do with his presidential prospects. Walker has now proven that his reforms in Wisconsin are both a model for conservative reform and a winning electoral strategy. But those reforms still have a long way to go. The crucial question was whether Wisconsin’s voters were going to give him the chance to keep pushing.
Walker came to office inspired by the advice of Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who told him to think bold and strike fast. The spearhead of Walker’s reform agenda was Act 10, which broke the stranglehold of public-sector unions on Wisconsin’s deplorable finances. Act 10 essentially turned Wisconsin, one of the leading lights of the labor-union movement, into a right-to-work state. (Wisconsin is still technically a union state with respect to the National Labor Relations Act, but private-sector unions in Wisconsin have waned to the point of irrelevance, so the major union presence was in the public sector.)
The challenge Walker faced was that reforms take time to work, and – initially, at least — generate much more opposition than support. His approval ratings in Wisconsin plunged to 37 percent as the venomous reaction of entrenched special interests (in this case, public-sector unions) took its toll. Those special interests enjoyed enormous political support both in Wisconsin and across the country, and Walker had only four years to demonstrate that the benefits of conservative reform could outweigh that support among moderates and independents.
Progressives correctly identified the threat that Walker represents to them nationally. If the most sacred privileges of their special interests could be undone in the birthplace of progressivism, those perks wouldn’t be safe anywhere in the country. But if Walker had lost, it would have meant that sweeping conservative reforms of government would face uncertain prospects in virtually every state and at the national level.
Governor Mitch Daniels succeeded in reforming Indiana, but he was in many ways sui generis. Now, however, what Daniels did in Indiana has been replicated in Wisconsin. The birthplace of progressivism, the Midwestern heartland, is becoming the birthplace of a new conservatism — a conservatism not just of limited government but of good government; not just pro-business but pro-competition, a conservatism bent on defending the common man from the rapacious rule of special interests. It’s a conservatism that can be true to its principles and still appeal to moderates, independents, and even Democrats. Indeed, a large number of Wisconsin voters have voted twice for Obama and twice for Walker.
Walker was undoubtedly helped in this race by the neighboring example of Illinois, where Governor Pat Quinn has been busy demonstrating in Technicolor the flaws of progressive government. The Left explains Walker’s victory in terms of outside forces (read: Koch brothers) who influenced the election with their money. But no combination of cabals and conspiracies and evil corporations could have come close to helping Walker as much as the Democratic government of Illinois.
There’s an even more important reason that Walker’s victory matters. A century of progressivism has left Wisconsin in a very deep hole. When Walker got to office, Wisconsin was one of the worst states in the country in which to do business, with one of the highest regulatory and tax burdens. Some estimates now rate it as No. 14 for doing business, but don’t be deceived. Wisconsin’s state budget is almost twice as large per person as the state budget of Texas, and even after billions in tax cuts, Wisconsin’s working families and businesses remain subject to a heavy tax burden. Freed from the shackles of heavy government, Wisconsin’s superbly productive labor force could transform it into one of the country’s leading economies — a “Texas model” for purple states.
Walker has a long way to go in proving that conservative reforms can work in the long term. For the moment, Wisconsin’s conservatives, moderates, and independents have decided to give him another term. Here’s hoping he doesn’t rest on his laurels, and instead once again thinks bold and strikes fast, as he did four years ago.
— Mario Loyola, a contributing editor at National Review, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.