Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared his candidacy for the White House Monday that took on broad national and international issues. But his speech also offered a glimpse at a campaign roadmap that sticks closer to home, aiming straight for the heart of neighboring Iowa.
Speaking in rolled-up shirtsleeves in front of a faux wooden stage at the Waukesha County Expo Center, Walker’s speech sought to highlight his Midwestern everyman image: the son of an Iowa pastor who never graduated from college and shops frugally at Kohl’s. Speaker after introductory speaker mentioned his back-to-back-to-back victories in the blue state, winning election twice and beating back a recall after he dramatically weakened the power of the state’s public sector unions.
“My record shows that I know how to fight and win,” Walker said. “Now, more than ever, we need a President who will fight and win for America.”
The speech was full of coded references to his GOP opponents, who Walker deemed unable or unwilling to either fight or win. Senators, as he has long argued on the stump, have never won in Washington where a Democrat controls the White House. They served as foils to his record of executive experience. And other governors in the race, he contended, haven’t fought for the conservative agenda as hard as he has.
“We want high standards, but we want them set at the local level,” he said in an implicit critique of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “No Common Core. No nationwide school board.”
The text of the speech checked all the boxes on the conservative wish-list, ranging from pledging to repeal the Affordable Care Act to cutting taxes to boosting spending on defense and expanding the U.S. ground effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. He also highlighted his support for gun rights and opposition to abortion.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from a big city, a suburb or a small town, I will fight and win for you,” Walker said. “Healthy or sick, born or unborn, I will fight and win for you. Young or old — or somewhere in between — I will fight and win for you.”
A variation on his traditional stump speech and delivered from memory, Walker’s announcement speech only reinforced his clear, but challenging path to the nomination through the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
Iowa has been the focus of Walker’s political efforts over the past year, with frequent visits, staff hires and a long-standing office on the ground. It’s where he gave his breakout political speech in June—a biography-heavy address at Rep. Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit that earned rave reviews. It’s why he made sure to get a front-of-the-pack slot at Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s Harley-Davidson ride last month, and he pledged to visit all of the state’s 99 counties before the caucuses next February. It’s where he will spend three days this weekend touring in a Winnebago after traveling to the other three early voting states.
So far he’s been rewarded. Walker has assembled a strong group of financial backers, tapping Midwestern cities and Wall Street for support. He’s risen to the top of the polls in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, finding space to unite social conservatives and establishment Republicans into a winning coalition. But already there are signs of fraying.
Aides had initially plotted a more slow-and-steady approach than what transpired. But after Walker broke out in Iowa in January, he went so far as to declare himself the front-runner in the GOP race. The scrutiny that came along with it was often unflattering.
Walker punted on questions about evolution and foreign policy on a trip to Europe six months ago, and reversed his stance on ethanol subsidies in Iowa a month later. His position on immigration reform has seemed shifty, with Walker going so far as to suggest new limits on legal immigration several weeks ago.
Walker also faces doubts from conservatives who question the sincerity of his positions on social issues. Those won’t be helped by a quote from a Walker aide to National Journal Sunday suggesting Walker would pivot back to the center after the GOP primaries.
But Democrats recognize that Walker’s blue-collar appeal and proven ability to withstand challenges would make him a strong challenger to likely nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton fears the same, elevating Walker to the top tier of candidates she is willing to criticize by name, including Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
“Republicans governors like Scott Walker have made their names stomping on workers’ rights,” Clinton said Monday morning.