Scott Walker Heads Into 2016 Race With Wins on Gun Sales, Union Dues

Scott Walker waves during the Western Conservative Summit at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado on June 27, 2015 in Denver, Colorado.

Photo by Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

The Republicans who control Wisconsin’s legislature are handing Governor Scott Walker a going-away bag full of goodies to sell along the campaign trail ahead of his expected formal entry into the presidential race next week.

Among provisions likely to be passed in Madison during the closing days of the session are drug testing for some residents on public assistance, reduced tenure protection for university professors and a larger private-school voucher program.

That’s on top of two bills Walker has already signed that eliminate a 48-hour waiting period for firearms purchases and make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, prohibiting unions from charging private-sector workers compulsory dues.

“There’s a lot of material there that will help him with Republican activists,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “This year’s session moved to the right from previous sessions when he was governor.”

Having a fresh record of accomplishments is one of the advantages that sitting governors running for the presidency in 2016 will have over senators, who have been part of a Congress best known in recent years for gridlock. Vying with Walker is a group that includes governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and most likely Ohio’s John Kasich.

Winning Battles

“We need a Republican president who is actually going to act and win on these battles,” Walker said during a June 25 interview on Fox News. “We have shown in Wisconsin we are able to do that time and time again.”

The second-term governor, who made a national name for himself in 2011 by limiting collective bargaining for most of the state’s public workers, has argued that he’s played a central role in guiding the legislation, even though he’s been out of the state much of this year doing campaign legwork.

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“None of those things get done without his assistance,” said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin consultant who once worked as a Republican campaign manager against Walker in a primary. “Right-to-work wouldn’t have passed unless he supported it.”

When Walker outlined his two-year budget proposal in February, he sought to shape his state in a way that could boost his presidential prospects. But the item that was arguably his biggest 2015 legislative win wasn’t even on his stated agenda when the session began. As recently as December, he called right-to-work a “distraction.”

Not Trusted

Walker, 47, had also said during his 2014 re-election campaign that confronting unions again wasn’t a priority and that he didn’t expect the legislation would come up this year.

“I don’t know what that says about him, other than he can’t be trusted,” said Mike Browne, deputy executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a group that typically opposes Walker’s policies. “He has proven that he will do or say anything to win his next election.”

Throughout the legislative session, Democrats called Walker an absentee governor more focused on shaping his campaign persona than on doing what’s best for Wisconsin.

Christie has heard similar criticism in New Jersey, where the legislature is controlled by Democrats. He secured his fresh material largely through executive actions, such as cutting $1.6 billion from the budget and vetoing higher corporate taxes.

Kasich signed a two-year budget on June 30 that offers items Republican activists will like. It cuts personal income taxes by 6.3 percent, with $1.9 billion in net levy reductions, while boosting the state’s rainy-day fund to about $2 billion. He plans to announce his campaign July 21.

Jindal, who is competing as a hard-line social conservative, issued an executive order establishing “religious liberty” protections for those who oppose gay marriage, after Louisiana lawmakers balked at the idea.

Abortion Curbs

In Wisconsin, lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene this week to hammer out final details of the budget bill, including spending on transportation and an arena project.

Walker had pledged not to enter the presidential race until work was completed on the budget. It remains unclear whether lawmakers will finish their work before July 13, the date his political aides have said he’ll make his campaign announcement in suburban Milwaukee.

One bill that may have to wait until lawmakers return in September is a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest. Walker has said he’ll sign the legislation, which could calm concerns among social conservatives frustrated by what they saw as his vagueness on the issue during his 2014 re-election race and in interviews.

While the session handed Walker policy victories, it also created at least a couple points of potential attack for his rivals, a group expected to total at least 15.

Walker’s proposed use of taxpayer money to pay for half of a new $500 million arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, a professional basketball team that’s threatened to leave the state otherwise, is one potential vulnerability. The governor also called for issuing $1.3 billion in borrowing to pay for transportation projects, a level of debt that made many Wisconsin Republicans uncomfortable.

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