Within 18 hours of abruptly ending his sputtering presidential campaign Monday, Gov. Scott Walker tweeted out a photo of him meeting with his staff in his Capitol office Tuesday morning.
The message was clear: Walker is back to work in Wisconsin.
But with his approval rating under 40 percent and his relationship with legislative Republicans bruised, Walker has his work cut out for him as he seeks to re-establish his footing as the most powerful politician in the state.
“There’s always fallout, politically, any time you seek an office and it doesn’t happen,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in an interview.
There are still questions, Fitzgerald said, about whether Walker will be in office for the remainder of his term or whether he would take a position in a national administration if a Republican wins the White House next year.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said Walker’s absence during much of 2015 affected the governor’s ability to drive the state’s political and policy agenda. He said Walker — who began a second four-year term in January — needs to make it clear that he won’t be leaving the governor’s office midterm.
“He needs to get that message out sooner rather than later,” Nygren said. “Let’s do away with the speculation as quickly as we possibly can.”
Walker didn’t take questions after his brief announcement Monday and his office didn’t respond to an interview request Tuesday. Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the governor “looks forward to continuing to work hard for the people of Wisconsin for the remainder of his term.”
Lobbyist Bill McCoshen said he doesn’t expect Walker will go to Washington if a Republican wins in 2016, but he said he would have said the same thing about his former boss, Gov. Tommy Thompson, who became President George W. Bush’s secretary of health and human services in 2001.
Another big question is whether Walker will run for governor again or run for U.S. Senate against Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Both races are in November 2018. McCoshen said Walker wouldn’t face any Republican challengers for either seat, but until he makes a decision about his political future “he freezes the field on both of those races for awhile.”
McCoshen said Walker will have to rebuild relationships with groups like the private sector labor unions that supported him in his first three elections but were disappointed by his support for making Wisconsin a so-called “right-to-work” state, which at one time he said would never reach his desk.
“Those are relationships he’s going to have to work hard on if he chooses to run for re-election or for another office in 2018,” McCoshen said. “There are a lot of groups out there who view themselves as allies of the governor who are glad to see him actively re-engage.”
In the near-term this fall, lawmakers are preparing an agenda that includes proposals to divert federal funding away from Planned Parenthood, ban fetal tissue sales, overhaul the Government Accountability Board and the law governing secret “John Doe” investigations, and alter the state’s minimum markup law. Legislators are also discussing ways to improve the state’s troubled economic development agency.
Fitzgerald said he doesn’t expect to see changes in the fall legislative agenda because of Walker dropping out of the race. He said a lot of the items the majority had planned on taking up were things they knew the governor would sign.
During the most recent budget negotiations, “there was a level of frustration that there wasn’t more give and take” from Walker, Fitzgerald said.
“Maybe that will resume,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe the governor was handicapped by the idea that he was running for national office.”
‘Making amends’ with voters
Both Democrats and Republicans said Walker’s absence has weakened his standing in the state.
“The next question is, do we have a governor who wants to be governor?” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said in an interview Tuesday. “He’s been MIA for a while now.”
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said he has heard complaints from many Republican constituents about Walker’s travels, which has diminished his ability to use the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to enact his agenda.
“What he’d better do is get out and make amends with the people of the state of Wisconsin,” Olsen said. “He won (re-election in 2014), and the next day he was gone.”
McCoshen said it was unusual that the Legislature drove the debate on right-to-work and changes to the state’s prevailing wage law in the spring, but going forward “you’ll see (Walker) in the cockpit flying the plane.”
Scott Jensen, a lobbyist and former Republican Assembly speaker, said he expects Walker will reclaim his role as the party’s political leader.
“He clearly set the agenda for this state,” Jensen said of Walker’s first term. “He was sort of the captain of the team. I think he will completely resume those duties. He didn’t really set them aside, as much as everybody said, beforehand.”
Supreme Court decision
Walker already faces his next leadership test: He has the ability to appoint a Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Patrick Crooks, who died Monday.
Jensen said he expects Walker to appoint Appeals Court Judge Rebecca Bradley, who already declared her candidacy for the seat, rather than leave it open until voters decide next spring.
Jensen said when he worked for Thompson, “the notion of not using a gubernatorial power when available to you was anathema.”
Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said appointing Bradley to the seat would allow her political ads next spring to refer to her as “Justice Bradley,” and that would be “unseemly.”
Patrick said Walker “will make a determination at a more appropriate time.”
Walker spent much of the first six months of 2015 outside of the state as an unofficial candidate.
He launched his campaign in July shortly after signing a contentious state budget that cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin System while capping tuition, held K-12 funding and property taxes flat, raised park fees, cut borrowing for parkland and raised borrowing for roads. One Republican legislator called Walker’s proposal a “crap budget.”
Approval ranking dives
Soon after, Walker saw his approval level in the state drop to its lowest level — 39 percent — in the Marquette Law School Poll. His support dropped the most among independents, with self-identified Democrats and Republicans continuing to hold their polarized views of his performance.
“If he came out and tried to build bridges he’s burned, he might see a bump in his polls,” Ross said. “But we’ve never seen him do that before in his 22 years of campaign politics.”
Brandon Scholz, a lobbyist and Republican strategist, said he would expect to see Walker look for an opportunity to re-establish himself as a conservative reformer in Wisconsin.
“The only thing I’ve heard is he wants to get back to work, do the meetings this morning, and see what reforms might be on the docket,” Scholz said Tuesday. “What can he do to get back in that role of being a reform governor? The question is if that’s a path he wants to take, how much support is there for that in the Legislature.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he has heard some complaints, without specifying from whom, about Walker’s busy travels outside the state, “but I think that many of those will fall by the wayside as he re-engages with Wisconsin.”
Vos and Fitzgerald are scheduled to meet with Walker next Wednesday.
Contact reporter Matthew DeFour at email@example.com or 608-252-6144. Contact reporter Mark Sommerhauser at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6122.