MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Scott Walker became a conservative darling when, as a new Republican governor, he launched a bold — and successful — effort to break the power of public employee unions in his traditionally pro-labor state, and then survived a union-led campaign to recall him. Clearly, he was a man on a mission.
But now as Republican governors stake out a new array of conservative goals in the dozens of state legislatures the party controls, Walker has decided to lay low in Wisconsin. Instead of taking what many see as the next steps on a likely to-do list, such as making Wisconsin a right-to-work state or pushing tougher immigration laws, Walker is preaching moderation and calm. He has also backed away from proposals like eliminating the state’s same-day voter registration.
“We’re not going to do things that are going to bring 80,000 or 100,000 people into the Capitol,” Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal shortly before the legislative session began. “It’s just not going to happen again.”
The sudden softening of one of Republican America’s most combative governors is surprising to some given that Walker set the tone for conservatives on the march after the party swept to victory across the Midwest and Southwest in the 2010 elections. Within weeks of taking office, he stripped public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, cut state spending and began passing a wave of business-friendly legislation. Months of boisterous union protests at the Capitol, followed by the recall attempt, became a national political spectacle.
Democrats are skeptical that Walker won’t still come out with another surprise, like his sudden move against the unions two years ago.
“All the talk about moderation and bipartisanship we’re hearing him say doesn’t mean anything until you do it,” said Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen.
But others see Walker’s new aversion to conflict as the sign of someone concerned about re-election in 2014 and mindful of his image as a potential national candidate in the future.
Unlike other Republican leaders, Walker doesn’t have to worry about impatient conservatives agitating for change.
“We’re still rock solid behind him,” said Nancy Milholland, organizer of a tea party group in Racine. “We’re blessed to have him as a governor because he’s such a stellar conservative. People around the country love this governor.”
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that led the successful push for right to work legislation in Michigan last month, is willing to give him a pass on the issue.
“It doesn’t have to happen this session,” said Luke Hilgemann, director of the organization’s Wisconsin chapter. “It’s a long-term process.”
With strong majorities in many of the 26 state legislatures they control, Republicans are planning major tax initiatives in about a dozen states, including Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and North Carolina. Two of Wisconsin’s neighbors, Michigan and Indiana, recently passed right to work laws, which bar unions from collecting mandatory dues from workers, and three or four other states could follow suit soon, according to advocacy organizations working on the issue.
With union membership in the Midwest declining, passing right to work in Wisconsin would be “within the realm of possibility” if Walker and his Republican Legislature were so inclined, said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee. But Walker isn’t willing.
Walker seems intent on trying to improve his job growth record in the state and tending to other lower-key issues.
“He has to spend the next two years, as he’s developing his national profile, showing that he can govern without the state devolving into chaos,” said Scot Ross, leader of a liberal advocacy group.
Republican strategist Mark Graul said Walker’s decision to focus on jobs and avoid other issues is understandable.
“Conservatives want to see the economic agenda come to the center as well,” Graul said.
Walker is nowhere close to fulfilling his 2010 campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs over four years. Depending on which numbers one uses, private sector jobs in Wisconsin have increased by either 37,000 or 86,500. The new public-private agency Walker created to head economic development has been plagued by management problems.
Walker will outline his agenda for the next year in his State of the State address on Tuesday. In addition to a tax cut proposal, he is expected to offer more plans for workforce development, though details may not come until his budget is released in February. He is also expected to seek an expansion of school vouchers in the state.
Walker has already gone out his way to consult with Assembly Democrats, inviting them to his office for weekly meetings. The contrast with Walker’s blitz in 2011 was not lost on the invitees.
“A lot of what he’s doing is to try and smooth over some of the rough edges that were so apparent in his first year or two in office and put himself in a better position for re-election,” said Mike McCabe, head of the liberal advocacy group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Walker got plenty of love from conservatives during the June recall election he won by 7 points. He raised about $37.5 million, a record high, drawing money from conservatives nationwide.
But advancing conservatives’ broader ideological fight does not seem to be on the agenda. Though the 45-year-old Walker is much better known nationwide than most governors, his image among voters outside Wisconsin is not yet fixed.
“This is about leadership development,” Ross said. “A lot of what Walker’s motivation is is positioning positioning himself for what’s going to happen in 2016.”