Walker charms crowds at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME
March 19, 2015 6:54 AM EDT

The rally on the statehouse steps in early March had all the trappings of labor’s glory days. Thousands of union men and women gathered beneath orange-and-blue banners to protest a right-to-work bill that would limit the power of the state’s private-sector unions. From a distance, with tinny strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” rising into the freezing sunshine, it seemed they were ready for the fight. “We’ve been here 83 years, and we’re going to be here at least 83 more!” shouted Shannon Maier, a union supporter, her voice crackling through an amplifier.

But up close, among the workers swaddled in camouflage coveralls, stomping away the cold in woolen hats, the rally felt more like a wake. After all, the right-to-work bill, which makes paying union dues voluntary, was already an all but done deal. It had passed the state senate in February and was now expected to sail through the Republican-dominated legislature. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had promised to sign it as soon as possible. And the protesters knew it. They were not there to impart their vision of their ideal state but to bear witness to its demise. “It’s important to be here,” said Jim Brown, a retired plumber, his blue eyes watery. “Just so that we are here.”

Four days later, on March 9, Walker signed the bill into law, making Wisconsin the nation’s 25th right-to-work state. It was a searing blow to Wisconsin’s organized labor movement, which for years has been fighting for its life. The first setback came in 2011, when Walker–just months into his first term and in defiance of the 100,000-plus protesters who later camped out on the capitol grounds–pushed through a powerful anti-labor bill, Act 10, which cut benefits and gutted collective bargaining for public-sector unions. Now it was the private-sector unions’ turn.

But if it was a sad day for unions, it was a victorious one for Walker, who has leveraged his image as a union buster to become something of a national hero to the right. After leading early polls in Iowa, he has become a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Over the past four years, Walker has slashed corporate taxes, shrunk the number of people eligible for Medicaid and food stamps, expanded school voucher programs, made it harder to get an abortion and signed a concealed-carry law for firearms. That conservative hit parade has earned Walker national accolades, the confidence of the Republican base and access to financial support from conservative heavy hitters. But even those policy achievements have been outshone by his political ones.

Walker is on the national stage today because he figured out not just how to excite Republicans but also how to harm Democrats. In the past four years, Walker has quietly dismantled one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of power, organized labor, in a state that helped birth the labor movement. During the first two years of Walker’s tenure, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 48 saw its membership collapse by two-thirds and its reported income wither from more than $7 million in 2010 to $650,000 in debt by 2013, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal. The Wisconsin State Employees Union has lost 60% of its members and watched its budget plunge by two-thirds, to just $2 million a year, according to executive director Marty Beil.

Meanwhile, Walker has signed a new election law, which has yet to go into effect, requiring all voters to show photo identification at the polls, a move that can depress turnout among Democratic constituencies. He has also overseen a redistricting plan that is likely to keep the statehouse red for a decade. In 2012, the year after his Republican legislature redrew the electoral map, state Republicans lost the popular vote by a 7-point margin but won majorities in both houses.

Walker’s staff insists that such political gains were not intentional but a happy side effect of the governor’s “big, bold reforms.” But Walker seems willing to take some credit. “I have to tell you, the Wisconsin way is working,” he told a crowd at the Iowa Freedom Summit this year. “Since I was elected governor, we cut taxes, we balanced the budget, we took the power away from the Big Government special interests and put it firmly back in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.”

That sort of talk has his foes eyeing his meteoric rise with both awe and fear. Here is a man who, in less than six years, went from being the Milwaukee County executive to a national conservative star. Will he be able to harness that power and bring his unique brand of politics to the national stage? “He’s been very effective at doing exactly what he wanted to do,” says representative Peter Barca, the Democratic leader in the state assembly. “It’ll take decades to undo the damage he has done.”

Mona Lisa Smile

By almost any measure, Walker makes an unlikely revolutionary. The soft-spoken, slightly balding former Eagle Scout is not, by his own joking admission, particularly charismatic. Despite being the son of a Baptist preacher, his public speeches lack sizzle, and despite his well-publicized love for Harley-Davidsons, he comes off–even standing astride a gleaming hog–as lumpish, affable, your average middle-aged dad. His Twitter feed seems designed as a ballad to blandness, featuring photos of his lunches (often a ham sandwich and an Ocean Spray cranberry juice), his household chores (Comet, a bathroom sink) and love notes to his wife (“my sweetie Tonette!”), whom he married 22 years ago on Ronald Reagan’s birthday. They now celebrate their anniversary by serving friends a macaroni-and-cheese casserole and Jelly Belly beans, the Gipper’s favorite foods.

But that gee-whiz persona conceals a harder edge. As an aspiring student-body politician at Marquette University–a Jesuit college in Milwaukee from which he dropped out in 1990, 34 credits shy of a degree–Walker earned the nickname Niedermeyer, an unkind reference to the humorless disciplinarian in Animal House willing to go to great lengths to get his way. Twenty-five years later, his reputation has a similar tint. Both friends and critics warn against writing him off as dumb or too nice, describing him instead as deeply ambitious, tactical, driven and almost preternaturally committed to the goal at hand. The nice-guy governor doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t curse or stray off message. He calmly, relentlessly gets what he wants.

“He won’t give up or be intimidated or compromise what he believes is right, no matter what,” says Jim Steineke, the Republican majority leader in the assembly, who, like many of Walker’s allies, described the governor’s laser-like focus in a positive light. When 100,000 protesters convened at the capitol in 2011, Walker “would just come in with a little smile on his face, not losing his temper,” says Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the state senate and one of Walker’s closest allies. “He’s very calm.”

But Walker’s political adversaries say his famous doggedness is what has helped remake Wisconsin state politics in recent years in the image of the U.S. Congress, where uncompromising ideology has led to government shutdowns and destructive brinkmanship. “It’s true that once he’s decided on something, he doesn’t let anything dissuade him, not even facts,” says Lena Taylor, who ran against Walker for Milwaukee County executive in 2008 and is now in the state senate. Sheldon Wasserman, a Democrat who served in the state legislature with Walker in the 1990s, remembers a time when the Republican leadership was trying to collect votes to raise the gas tax. “They were beating him up on the floor, really laying into him, and he just said, ‘No, I won’t do it,’ and then sat there, looking straight ahead, with this little smile on his face,” Wasserman says. “Here’s this new guy, a backbencher with no power, standing his ground. It was incredible to watch.”

Some attribute Walker’s focus to his personal relationship with God. Both in his memoir, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, and in speeches to conservative crowds, Walker explains how he prays before making major choices, like the one to run for governor, and for help standing by “tough decisions that were not always popular.”

“He finds strength in God’s strength,” says former Wisconsin senator Dan Kapanke, one of Walker’s strongest allies in his first term. But Walker’s critics say his faith feeds his sense that he’s justified in ignoring competing voices. “He feels tremendously that he is right, and why compromise at all when you know you’re right?” Wasserman says.

But if Walker has proved a bold governor, he has also shown himself to be a far more cagey campaigner, often choosing to play down his more controversial ambitions during election season. John Torinus Jr., a Republican commentator who has supported Walker in the past, has grown frustrated with what he sees as a “government by surprise,” one that “[throws] out broad-brush policy shifts without a lot of input beforehand.” In Walker’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2010, for example, he never mentioned–not even in conversations with top allies in the legislature–that he was considering eliminating collective bargaining for public-sector unions. It wasn’t until after he’d been in office for about a month that, in Walker’s own words, he “dropped the bomb.” Around the same time, a documentary crew caught him on tape responding to a question from a donor about whether he would pass right-to-work legislation. He said he planned to deal with public-sector unions first, a strategy he described as “divide and conquer.”

Nonetheless, in the lead-up to the 2014 election, Walker promised, time and again, that he would not support right-to-work legislation. But less than a month after being sworn in, he announced that he would sign the law if it landed on his desk. Walker’s political staff downplayed the mismatch of words and deeds, saying it was the state legislature’s decision to pass the bill and that the governor never said he wouldn’t sign a bill if it passed–only that he wouldn’t “support” its passage. Democratic colleagues said that kind of slippery rhetoric is a Walker trademark. “There is this mentality that what is said doesn’t have consequences,” says Jennifer Shilling, the senate minority leader. “It’s, ‘Say whatever you need to say–we can do whatever we want once we’re in.'”

The Walker Way

On the early presidential campaign trail, Walker has dismissed any suggestion that his rapid rise is the result of tactical decisions, casting himself instead as a guileless good guy willing to go to war for what he believes is right. Before Republican crowds, he tells war stories about protesters descending on the capitol and threatening his family. One particularly disturbed man, he says, promised to “gut his wife like a deer,” a detail that reliably elicits gasps of horror from the crowds.

Walker’s theme, in a nutshell, is a new turn on an old conservative cliché: with a little grit, Republicans need not compromise to win. “If you’re not afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results,” he told the crowd at the Iowa Freedom Summit, pausing for the spontaneous applause to die down. “And if you get the job done, the voters will actually stand up for you.” It’s a message that plays well among conservative crowds in the early primary states, but back in Wisconsin, Walker’s boldness gets mixed reviews.

According to Public Policy Polling, this month, just 43% of Wisconsinites approve of the job Walker’s doing. Even fewer–35%–think he should run for President. Wisconsin Democrats are quick to explain Walker’s electoral victories as aberrations, aided by flawed opponents, low voter turnout in non-presidential-election years and asymmetric fundraising. As a favorite of deep-pocketed conservative organizations like the Bradley Foundation and Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, Walker has raised more than $82 million in his past three races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. By contrast, in 2002, Walker’s predecessor, Jim Doyle, spent about $7 million in today’s dollars.

Conservative allies point to another reason for Walker’s repeated victories: many of his policies earn just enough bipartisan support. According to a 2012 Marquette University poll, 74% of Wisconsin voters approved of the part of Act 10, Walker’s signature law, that required most public employees to contribute more to their health care costs and pensions. On average, nonunionized full-time private-sector workers had already been contributing as much to both for years. To many, it felt only fair. While less than a third of voters supported the part of that law that targeted collective bargaining, the overall approval was enough to help Walker win the recall election. That’s smart politics for a man with designs on the national stage. As it now stands, only 51% of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a 2013 Pew Research Survey, down from 63% in 2001. Republican governors Rick Snyder of Michigan and John Kasich of Ohio both won re-election recently after supporting anti-labor bills.

As Walker prepares to square off in the Republican primary–it will be the first time his conservative bona fides will be tested in a race against other conservatives–he’s likely to double down on his union-busting message. Limiting collective bargaining, he says, has saved taxpayers $3 billion in four years, primarily by freeing government administrators to renegotiate employee contracts. In Appleton school district, for example, administrators were able to change their employees’ health insurance–which for years had been bid out to a union trust–saving $3.1 million, according to the Appleton Post-Crescent.

But tracing the actual impact of that radical policy shift is tricky. In many districts, for example, the money that schools have been able to save by renegotiating contracts has not kept pace with the state’s deep cuts to K-12 education, says Kim Kohlhaas, president of Wisconsin’s American Federation of Teachers. “It’s a good-news, bad-news story,” says Charles Carlson, who has worked as a consultant to Wisconsin’s public employers for four decades. “Administrators say, We now have the flexibility to do whatever we’d like. But the bad news is we still have to make everything work in an environment where the resources are reduced.” He points to a substantial shift in the health care cost burden from employers to employees. Union head Beil estimates that the state’s roughly 415,000 public employees have weathered, on average, 13% to 15% cuts in take-home pay in the past four years.

The state’s economy is also struggling. While Walker promised in 2010 to deliver 250,000 new jobs by 2015, he’s fallen about 40% short of that goal. Wisconsin–once a Midwestern powerhouse–has had a slower job growth rate than any other state in the region except Illinois. Due largely to tax cuts under Walker, the state could face a $2 billion shortfall in its projected budget, according to the left-leaning Wisconsin Budget Project.

On a Thursday night in early March, Dana LaFleur, a third-grade teacher and a 25-year veteran of the classroom, leaned over a bottle of beer at a bowling alley in West Salem, a small town in western Wisconsin. What Walker has done to the state can’t be quantified in spreadsheets, she says. “It’s not about salaries or pensions or health care. It’s about who has the power.”

Since Walker came in, she continues, the playing field has changed, and she is not sure how it will get resettled or what Walker will be able to do if he makes it to the White House. “The unions are what fund the Democratic Party. We bankroll them,” says LaFleur, a former union negotiator, between sips. “If we don’t have an organization, if we don’t band together, they’re going to suck us dry.”

–WITH REPORTING BY ALEX ALTMAN AND ZEKE J. MILLER

This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.

Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com.

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