Many Republicans believe that their next presidential nominee is likely to be a governor or former governor. The experience of watching Barack Obama’s floundering presidency has soured many voters on elevating senators who’ve never managed more than a personal staff to the Oval Office. Among the potential GOP candidates with executive experience are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, retiring governor Rick Perry of Texas, and sitting governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
If the GOP nominee is a sitting governor, journalists and party activists will want to know what issues they will be emphasizing back home with their legislatures in the coming year. Chris Christie, largely out from the shadow of his Bridgegate scandal, will be tackling the state’s public-pension liabilities, a state proxy for the federal entitlement crisis. Bobby Jindal will be plugging a $180 million annual deficit in his state’s budget, a test of his ability to cut spending. John Kasich will be trying to reduce the state’s income-tax rate as well as passing tougher regulations on charter-school operators.
But perhaps the most extensive agenda will be pursued by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Since he won reelection by six points in November, his aides have indicated he wants to continue lowering taxes, push to expand school choice, and replace the federal Common Core education standards. He also will try to have food-stamp and unemployment benefit recipients undergo drug testing, in part so they can show employers they are capable of holding jobs. As of now, he doesn’t plan any new dramatic assaults on the public-employee unions whose power he curbed in 2011 legislation.
Most of his agenda will resonate with GOP primary voters. But other parts are more tricky. Walker has floated the politically risky idea of a new sales tax on gasoline to pay for more roads. The new tax would replace an existing one, but would almost certainly cost drivers more in the future. That “tax swap” might not sit well with anti-tax activists in key primary states.
Walker will also have to address an issue both social conservatives and right-to-work activists have a stake in. He has delayed for months on a decision about whether or not to approve a massive new $808 million off-reservation casino in Kenosha proposed by the Menominee tribe. Proponents tout the 3,000 jobs that could be created, while social conservatives say Wisconsin already has enough gambling. Walker has agreed with that view in the past, noting that legal gambling carries clear social costs while often not injecting new dollars into struggling communities.
He is also under pressure on the casino from Wisconsin Right to Work, a group which is running ads that highlight the fact that the Kenosha casino would be the first union-operated shop of its kind in the state, and would also operate using card check — the tool unions use to intimidate workers. “Any presidential candidate who expands gambling is going to have a lot of explaining to do,” declares Pat Andrews, a leader in Phyllis Schalfly’s conservative Eagle Forum group.
Walker appears almost certain to run for president, and his conservative record has created a lot of good will for him with national GOP donors and activists. But he will have to handle two issues carefully — the new gas tax he might propose would have to be carefully thought out to avoid demagogic attacks by competitors and his decision on the Kenosha casino will be watched carefully by his social-conservative allies.