As you probably know, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was the star of the Iowa Freedom Summit in Iowa last weekend, the first “cattle call” of the 2016 Republican presidential contest. A lot of accounts focused on his speaking style, or his recitation of “accomplishments” in Wisconsin. But at TPMCafe I pointed to something else that was going on:
For my money, what most makes Scott Walker attractive to the kind of people who attended the Iowa Freedom Summit is his perceived electability: As he mentioned in his speech, and nearly every commenter duly repeated, he’s won three elections in four years in a state carried twice by Barack Obama and governed by a Democrat right before him. Yes, two of those elections were in relatively-low-turnout midterms, and his defeat of a recall effort in 2012 was a special election where he also benefited from the reluctance of some swing voters to remove a duly elected governor from office in the middle of a term. But it’s a better record of electability than other candidates can boast of, unless John Kasich or Rick Snyder run. (Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney won in competitive states, but not since 2002).
There’s a bonus, though, that may make Walker’s pitch especially seductive: He won over and over again in Wisconsin without compromising with conservatism’s enemies. Indeed, he behaved almost like a liberal caricature of a conservative villain. And it was deliberate. In 2013, after his recall victory, Walker published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal offering the novel theory that his aggressive conservatism gave him a leg up with swing voters:
Polls show that about 11% of the people in Wisconsin today support both me and the president. There are probably no two people in public life who are more philosophically opposite–yet more than one in 10 approve of us both.
To make a conservative comeback, Republicans need to win these Obama-Walker voters and their equivalents across the country. In the Wisconsin recall election, we mobilized conservative voters by standing up for conservative principles against enormous pressure. But we also persuaded at least some of President Obama’s supporters to support us, too…
The way Republicans can win those in the middle is not by abandoning their principles. To the contrary, the courage to stand on principle is what these voters respect. The way to win the center is to lead.
That’s why those arguing that conservatives have to “moderate” their views if they want to appeal to the country are so wrong.
This is catnip to conservatives. They’re being endlessly lectured by mainstream media pundits and political professionals in their own camp that they need to “compromise” with Democrats or “reach out” to new constituencies beyond their base if they are to win presidential elections. That’s almost exactly what Jeb Bush is saying in announcing he’s willing to take some hits in the primaries if it enables him to win a general election. But conservatives naturally resist this kind of tradeoff, which they believe they’ve been asked to make far too often with far too little payoff. Walker tells them they do not have to choose. They can win by confrontation, not compromise or outreach, and his three victories are the proof.
Keep that in mind next time you hear Walker’s rationale for candidacy is some sort of relatively moderate ideological positioning. He’s found a sweet spot where electability doesn’t mean “moving to the center.”