Politics & Policy

Scott Walker Is His Own Best Political Operative, and That’s a Problem

(Win McNamee/Getty)
His quick rise to the top tier of GOP contenders has caught him and his campaign staff off guard.

Charles Dickens might understand the Scott Walker campaign. For the Wisconsin governor, it’s been the best of times and the worst of times. As Walker has rocketed into the top tier of Republican presidential contenders over the past few months, he’s also made a series of missteps, alarming insiders even as he’s delighted primary voters and maintained enviable strength in state and national polls.

Walker watchers have long questioned his ability to take his Wisconsin organization national. And his proto-presidential operation is in many ways a Wisconsin one: steering the ship are Keith Gilkes, who managed Walker’s 2010 campaign and his recall election, and served as the governor’s chief of staff during his first term in office; R. J. Johnson, Walker’s longtime campaign strategist; and Stephan Thompson, who served as deputy campaign manager for Walker’s 2010 bid and ran his 2014 campaign for reelection.  

Just a few months into the long 2016 primary campaign, the whispered doubts about whether Walker can successfully scale up are louder than ever. Walker impressed an audience in Des Moines in late January with his charisma and energy, and got rave reviews in the media. His performance threw him into the national spotlight long before anybody expected. On top of the demands of a grueling day job — Walker does not have the luxury of inhabiting a Senate office — came the sudden, unexpected burden of shouldering the hopes of conservatives looking for an alternative to Florida governor Jeb Bush. All of that seemed to come before the governor was ready, and his speech was followed by six weeks of snafus, appearances in which the governor either looked unprepared to answer basic policy questions or simply botched responses to softball questions.

This shakiness culminated last week in a minor drama surrounding the campaign’s hiring and firing of a top aide, Liz Mair, in the course of 48 hours. When reporters scoured her Twitter feed and found statements that displeased top Iowa Republicans, the campaign asked for her resignation. The moment seemed to harden opinion in elite circles that the Walker organization is, at best, not yet firing on all cylinders, even though the polls do not reflect these problems.

“It’s now been almost six weeks of unforced errors. That gets to be troubling for a lot of people,” says the leader of a top conservative organization. “How does one not check the digital footprint of somebody who’s going to be running the digital operation? You know, that’s alarming.” (Jeb Bush also fired his chief technology officer after his indiscreet tweets came to light.)

 “Is it like a battleship that’s taken a torpedo below the waterline? You sort of wonder about that,” says Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee radio talk-show host who has known the governor for years.

#related#Walker’s operation dismisses these concerns, pointing to the positive reception he’s received on the campaign trail. ”As Governor Walker has traveled the country in recent weeks, he has consistently been greeted by large crowds hungry to hear more about the bold reforms he implemented in Wisconsin and the results he was able to achieve,” says AshLee Strong, the press secretary for Our American Revival, Walker’s campaign-in-waiting, who declined to answer questions about Mair’s dismissal or Walker’s performance. “Americans want to know what leaders can do to improve their lives and that’s the conversation that Governor Walker will continue through Our American Revival. Governor Walker’s focus is on the American people, not the Washington horse race chatter.”  

Mair’s firing had resonance in Madison, where some saw the incident as a feature of Walker’s operation rather than a bug. It was just over a year ago when another Walker aide, John Schulze, the chief legal counsel for the state Department of Transportation, was fired for sending an inappropriate e-mail over a private e-mail system to some of the governor’s former aides. Schulze’s e-mail became public in the course of a criminal appeal related to one of the John Doe investigations conducted by the Milwaukee County district attorney into the actions of several former Walker aides. The e-mail was tame by most standards: a faux press release about the possibility of legalizing prostitution in Wisconsin, which Schulze had originally written in 1998. Re-upping it and blasting it out again in 2010, Schulze wrote to the former Walker aides, “1) I cannot believe I sent this over the state email system. 2) I am one funny dude.” The governor’s spokesman said the e-mail was in “poor taste” and that there was “no room for this poor conduct in Governor Walker’s administration.”

Christian Schneider, a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says that Walker “kind of threw [Schulze] overboard,” adding that the governor is sometimes ”quick to clear the decks if something gets in the way.”

According to several people who have worked with Walker over the years — most of whom requested anonymously to speak candidly — the central problem in the Walker organization is that the governor has long served as his own campaign strategist — and he’s obviously a good one. As a result, he’s never had to build a large team of political professionals and delegate to it.

“He’s his own chief strategist, he’s his own speechwriter, he’s his own PR person,” says a Wisconsinite who has known the governor since his days as a county executive. “That may work when you’re a county executive. It’s a little more problematic when you’re the governor of a state, but you absolutely can’t do that when you’re running for president.” The Washington Post once called Walker a “hands-on tactician fixated on his public image” who “operated as the county executive, chief of staff, press secretary and campaign strategist all at once.”  

“There’s a little speculation that his inner circle is like a dot, it’s like two or three people,” says Sykes, “because he’s very, very talented at these things.”

The Milwaukee Country attorney general’s investigations into several Walker aides led to the release, over the course of a few years, of thousands of e-mails between Walker and his staffers. They offer a rare glimpse of Walker’s management style and of his engagement with details, and they show Walker directing the outside messaging and fundraising for his recall effort. In April 2011, fundraiser Kate Doner told campaign consultant R. J. Johnson that the governor “wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging. We had some past problems with multiple groups doing work on ‘behalf’ of Gov. Walker and it caused some issues . . . the Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth.”

The governor later explained the political strategy behind his recall to Republican strategist Karl Rove, long considered one of the top political minds in the country. “We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities),” Walker wrote in May 2011. 

If Walker’s team was unprepared for the scrutiny that accompanied his early rise in the polls, the governor’s schedule has left little time for him to get his sea legs. He faced a tough reelection in November; for months, it seemed that his political future was at stake. Then, in early February, he submitted a controversial budget to the Wisconsin legislature that ignited a separate set of controversies.

But rather than sequestering himself after his January speech in Iowa to bone up on national policy issues, on which he has had little time to focus during his eventful governorship, Walker, who has always made himself accessible to reporters, started talking to the national press. The result has been that the flip-flops and vagaries that are par for the course in any presidential campaign have looked particularly clumsy. Days after his appearance in Iowa, Walker landed on the set of ABC’s This Week, where he struggled to define his position on immigration. When a spate of articles, including here at National Review, revealed that, as county executive, Walker had signed a pair of resolutions backing comprehensive immigration reform, his team denied the charges until, earlier this month, Walker declared he’d changed his view on the subject.

Something similar is happening with Walker’s stance on ethanol mandates, opposed by conservative free-marketeers but supported by many of the Iowans he’ll need in order to win the state’s caucus. Walker took a stand against the mandates during his 2010 gubernatorial bid. Now he says he was referring to state standards rather than federal ones and that, while he supports the federal standard now, he nonetheless wants to phase it out over the long term.

Then there are the ambiguities on policy. It wasn’t just on ABC. Walker also offered himself up to The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack. The governor, McCormack wrote, “remains undecided on a number of issues.” Walker punted on whether he’d back laws to rein in the National Security Agency and on what sort of a tax-reform plan he’d support. On foreign policy, Walker said he hopes to get briefings from his adviser via Skype during his daily 6 a.m. runs. “It’s not clear to what extent Walker hasn’t had time to develop concrete views on national policies and to what extent he’s simply trying to avoid taking positions that could be attacked by other Republican contenders,” McCormack concluded.

The political press has covered these slip-ups with predictable obsessiveness. While Walker himself has sometimes reacted defensively when under attack, his team has often responded by firing off sharp missives to reporters for any coverage considered negative, and their nasty notes are becoming notorious among political reporters. It’s a practice that goes all the way up to campaign manager Rick Wiley.

There is little doubt that the governor is capable — and self-confident. Scholars and experts who have briefed him say he is smart, likeable, and engaged. A top Republican leader says that, a couple of weeks after Walker’s Iowa speech, the governor called him and showered Florida senator Marco Rubio with compliments. “He mentioned that if he were the nominee, he thought Rubio would make a terrific running mate,” says the operative. And, asked by Breitbart News what it felt like to be singled out by the president for signing right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin, he said, “It suggests maybe we’re the frontrunner if somebody is taking an active interest in what a state governor is doing.”

If there’s a downside to the sudden ascent, it’s better than the alternative. Although Jeb Bush has built a juggernaut of a fundraising operation, his showing in the polls is lackluster. Says a top Republican operative, “Nobody likes Jeb.” By the same token, he continues,  “Christie’s organization is a f***ing joke and Rubio doesn’t even have an organization to be dysfunctional.”

“In that context,” he says of the Walker team, “it’s hard to beat them up too much. They’re not in too much worse shape than anybody else.” And for the time being, at least, the voters don’t seem to care

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