National polls show Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Chris Christie as the best-known Republicans preparing to run for president. Their high name ID puts them in front of other challengers for now. But the road to the GOP nomination runs through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — all states that vote early and can give an upstart candidate valuable momentum. Iowa will kick off campaigning for its caucuses this coming weekend, when Citizens United and Iowa congressman Steve King host the day-long Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines.
While Bush and Romney won’t be there, at least eight potential GOP candidates will show up, along with 150 journalists. Lots of attention will be paid to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who many observers say has a chance to break out of the pack in Iowa. He comes from a neighboring state and understands Midwestern sensibilities. His dramatic confrontation with public-sector unions in 2011 and his ability since then to survive both a recall and a reelection battle against those unions have earned him the equivalent of a Medal of Honor with many conservative activists. He has built up a national network of donors who can finance an intense grassroots operation in a state where organizing supporters is key.
But as he prepares to take his record to the nation, Walker is getting blowback from back home. Republicans won clear control of both houses of the state legislature last November, and many are eager to press an aggressive conservative agenda this year. Topping their priority list is a right-to-work bill under which private-sector workers can’t be forced to join a union or pay union dues. A total of 24 states — including Iowa — are right-to-work. The latest additions to the list were heavily unionized Michigan and Indiana.
Yet Governor Walker has made it clear that he views the push for right-to-work as a distraction from his buttoned-down agenda of business, tax, and education reforms. Wisconsin state-senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald told WISN-TV last Sunday that “not much will happen” on the issue in the next few months. Fitzgerald said he understood Walker’s desire to avoid large protests like those seen in 2011, when Act 10, a law restricting public-sector unions, passed. “He’s concerned that if right-to-work would turn into Act 10, and that the Capitol is suddenly swarmed with protesters and everything we went through during Act 10, that it sends a strange message to people outside of Wisconsin that maybe Wisconsin isn’t the place to expand your business or, to certainly locate to,” Fitzgerald said.
Still, he has also warned Walker that “we can’t tiptoe through this session without addressing this.”
Indeed, he’s right. Right-to-work makes sense for Wisconsin. Studies show that it can attract jobs and enhance business formation — especially if it’s combined with the kinds of reforms Walker has already implemented. It’s also popular — a new survey by a University of Chicago professor found Wisconsin residents favoring the idea by 62 percent to 32 percent. AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka boasts that politicians who oppose Big Labor will “pay a steep political price,” but it turns out that labor-law reform is popular. In Indiana, Republicans picked up legislative seats after right-to-work passed there in 2012. Ditto for Michigan after its law passed in 2012. Wisconsin Republicans now dominate the legislature in part because Act 10’s reforms are seen as helping to restrain property taxes and making government workplaces more flexible. Government-union membership fell by almost 30 percent in the state between 2011 and 2013.
Another issue where Governor Walker will have to tread carefully in Iowa is the expansion of state-approved gambling. Walker will have to decide by February 19 whether to approve a proposed $800 million Menominee Indian tribal casino in Kenosha. “Influential social conservatives in Iowa are warning Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that approving a proposed Kenosha casino next month could hurt his presidential bid” was the lead paragraph of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article this month. Newly elected Iowa U.S. senator Joni Ernst joined 600 other Republicans in sending Walker a petition urging him adopt a “No Expanding Gaming” policy. Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative in Iowa who led the successful defeat in 2010 of three Supreme Court justices who had approved same-sex marriage, has also written a letter to Walker highlighting the “increased societal problems of divorce, bankruptcy, debt, depression, and suicide” that gambling can produce. In 2012, Vander Plaats’s last-minute endorsement of Rick Santorum helped propel the former Pennsylvania senator to a photo-finish victory over Mitt Romney in Iowa.
As the son of a Baptist minister and someone with a strong pro-life record, Walker will appeal to social conservatives, just as his Act 10 success will attract libertarian-minded voters. But Iowa political activists tell me that Walker is taking real risks of leaks in his Iowa coalition if he either approves expanded gambling or chokes on approving right-to-work — especially in a state such as Iowa that has had such a law on its books for more than 60 years.
Success in politics often goes to those who are bold and can convince people of their consistency. As Governor Walker prepares for his Iowa political debut this Saturday, he should remember that it was those qualities that propelled him into the national spotlight. Now is not the time for him to adopt a new approach that would signal drift and inconsistency.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.