Emboldened by a decisive victory and expanded Republican majorities at the state Capitol, Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday pushed for a new wave of conservative legislation and government overhauls as speculation heats up about him as a possible 2016 presidential contender.
Walker says he hopes to fast-track the state budget process, expand the taxpayer-funded school voucher program, require drug tests for those seeking food stamps and unemployment benefits, and continue income and property tax cuts.
“We’re going to be even more aggressive now,” Walker told members of his Cabinet on Wednesday at the Capitol. “Because I think we’ve got an even stronger ally in the Legislature.”
Moving quickly — and aggressively — on the budget and other issues next spring would position Walker to make a decision about a presidential run when other possible candidates are likely to be announcing their plans.
On Tuesday, Walker defeated Democratic challenger Mary Burke, a Madison School Board member and former Trek Bicycle executive and state Commerce secretary. The race appeared close for months, but Walker’s nearly 6-point margin of victory was decisive.
Walker was catapulted onto the national stage in 2011 when he pushed the Act 10 collective bargaining changes. He solidified his political — and conservative — credentials by becoming the only governor to survive a recall, in 2012.
Walker focused much of his victory speech on drawing distinctions between Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. He said that while people in Washington push a top-down approach, his administration believes in building the economy from the ground up.
Peppered with references to the American dream and freedom from government dependence, Walker’s speech also aimed at a national audience.
Republicans expanded their majority in the state Senate to 19-14. And, based on preliminary results, the GOP expanded its already sizable majority in the state Assembly to as large as 63-36, up from the 60 seats they currently hold. Official canvass results are not yet available.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, were almost giddy at a Wednesday morning press conference at the Capitol about Assembly Republicans’ agenda for the next session.
Vos said his priorities include continuing tax cuts, pushing for school accountability and expanding the state’s voucher program, overhauling the state Government Accountability Board, and changing how secret John Doe investigations are conducted in Wisconsin.
Walker has been embroiled in two John Doe investigations in recent years, the first targeting his aides and associates while he was Milwaukee County executive and the second targeting his campaign and conservative groups during the recalls. He has not been charged in either investigation, and Republicans argue that the probes were politically motivated.
Vos also talked about replacing Common Core with educational standards developed in Wisconsin and changes to campaign finance laws.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he plans to get feedback from his new caucus before laying out a Senate Republican agenda.
Still, lawmakers are facing a $1.8 billion deficit for the 2015-16 budget, a figure that could change before January. Walker said in a video message Wednesday he has already begun working on his proposal.
Vos said Walker has never spoken to him about running for president, but said he can’t blame people for seeing Walker as a possible 2016 GOP presidential contender.
Fitzgerald said, “It’s no surprise to me that his name keeps coming up.”
Michael Wagner, assistant professor at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the governor’s victory Tuesday was crucial for his political career, as he can now say he’s won three elections in a swing state that has backed Democrats in recent presidential races.
“I think this goes a long way towards cementing his legacy as a successful Wisconsin politician,” Wagner said. “He now has a good story he can tell to party activists and donors.”
Wagner added, “I think he would be someone that would have to be taken seriously, and wouldn’t be viewed as a fringe candidate.”
Wagner said he didn’t think Walker would need to work too hard to court conservatives or “overtly try to make another splash to remind them of his conservative bona fides.”
“It’s remarkable how stable his coalition has been,” he said.
Peverill Squire, professor of political science at University of Missouri and an expert on the Iowa caucuses, agreed that Walker has the political biography to consider a presidential bid, but added it will be a crowded field.
“It’s going to take some time to become known nationally,” Squire said of Walker.
Squire said he thinks Walker would need to continue pushing a conservative agenda to introduce himself to rank-and-file Republicans.
“I think 2011 will probably continue to recede from view,” Squire said, referencing Act 10 and the reduction in union power in Wisconsin. “I think rank-and-file Republicans have some idea who he is, but there’s a lot that needs to be filled in nationally.”
Squire said Walker is better positioned for a presidential run than fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, saying the governor can run as not being part of the Washington, D.C., political establishment.
“That’s the opportunity that elected officials outside of D.C. enjoy,” he said.
Walker and Ryan are friends — and campaigned together frequently in the final days of Walker’s re-election bid. Walker has essentially said he wouldn’t run if Ryan got in the race.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he thinks there’s a “pretty good likelihood” Walker will choose to run for president.