WAUKESHA — From the place where he declared victory in the historic 2012 recall election, Gov. Scott Walker set out Monday evening to take his political winning streak and conservative message nationwide as the state’s first sitting governor to run for president.

Wisconsin has never produced a major-party nominee, let alone a president. Now, the polarizing politician who grew up flipping burgers and preaching from his father’s pulpit wants to rewrite the presidential history books the way he did in becoming the first U.S. governor to survive a recall.

“After a great deal of thought and a whole lot of prayer … we are proud to announce that we are officially running to serve as your president of the United States of America,” Walker told a crowd of about 2,000 supporters at the Waukesha County Expo Center.

He repeatedly emphasized a recent theme: that he is both a winner and a fighter — unlike other candidates whom he suggested are one or the other.

“My record shows that I know how to fight and win. Now more than ever we need a president who will fight and win for America,” he said.

“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 told the crowd. “Healthy or sick, born or unborn, I will fight and win for you. Young or old or somewhere in between, I will fight for you.”

Walker’s candidacy has been in the making for months, if not years. He catapulted onto the national stage in 2011 by curtailing public-workercollective bargaining, which led to the 2012 recall. In returning Monday to the location of his recall victory party, Walker reminded voters across the country of the historic moment.

Now, with the state budget in the rearview mirror, the grueling task of maintaining an early lead in Iowa, building support in other key early nominating states and taking his message to a national audience begins.

He is generally viewed as one of the top GOP candidates, and one who appeals to each of its tea party, establishment and social conservative wings.

“He’s doing relatively well for a person whose only claim to national fame was basically fighting the unions in Madison,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University and a UW-Madison graduate. “He’s done perhaps unexpectedly well under the circumstances, but there’s a long way to go.”

Walker’s launch was a family affair, featuring his wife, Tonette, and emceed by his college-age sons, Matt and Alex, who are taking a break from school this fall to help campaign for their dad. Walker’s father, Llew, a Baptist minister, gave the opening invocation, and his brother and nieces led the Pledge of Allegiance.

He sounded many familiar themes from speeches he has made over the past six months traveling the country, laying the groundwork for an official campaign. He focused on three themes — reform, growth and safety — in calling for the repeal of Obamacare, an overhaul of federal regulations, revamping welfare eligibility, reducing taxes and imposing new economic sanctions on Iran.

He touted his conservative accomplishments in Wisconsin, talked about shopping at Kohl’s and tied Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton to President Barack Obama, saying “America is leading from behind and we’re headed toward a disaster.”

“The good news is that there is still time left to turn things around,” Walker said. “To do this, we need new, fresh leadership. Leadership with big, bold ideas from outside of Washington. The kind of leadership that can actually get things done — like we have here in Wisconsin.”

Clinton, the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady, took a jab at Walker on Monday, telling ABC News: “Republican governors like Scott Walker have made their names by stomping on workers’ rights.”

Martha Laning, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, in an interview outside of Walker’s event, said Walker has divided the state, increased debt to record levels and “attacked the working people of our state.”

“So we’re hoping to spread the word and let people know that Governor Walker is not presidential material,” Laning said.

Extending streak

Walker officially declared his bid for the 2016 presidential nomination earlier Monday on Twitter and in his first campaign video.

Walker has spent almost his entire professional career in politics, winning 11 straight elections since 1993. He was elected five times to the state Assembly, three times to Milwaukee County executive’s office and three as governor.

Walker, 47, grew up in Plainfield, Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating contest, and Delavan, Wisconsin. He dropped out of Marquette University in his senior year to take a job with the American Red Cross and soon after launched his first campaign for state Assembly, which he lost.

But aside from dropping out of the 2006 governor’s race, he hasn’t lost since.

That ability to win elections, particularly in a state that hasn’t backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, is a key part of Walker’s pitch to GOP primary voters agitated from losing the last two presidential elections.

Walker is the 15th major Republican candidate to announce his presidential bid. He is considered in the top tier of contenders along with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with a pack of others not far behind. Two more candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, are expected to join the field.

Political observers in the key early primary states note the race is wide open.

It’s unusual for Republicans not to have a front-runner, making predictions about anyone’s chances all the more difficult, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“He can win the nomination if he runs as Scott Walker — the guy who stood up to the public-sector unions and who’s tough enough to deal with those Democrats in Washington,” Smith said.

David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, sees a path to victory through Iowa and a strong showing in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, where Walker will travel this week after his announcement.

“He’s the San Antonio Spurs,” Woodard said. “We don’t know if he’ll win, but he’ll be in the playoffs.”

Woodard said Walker lacks the name recognition of Bush and the charisma and charm of Rubio, but his polling data suggest Republicans who know something about Walker tend to like him.

“He doesn’t have that initial pop and sizzle,” Woodard said. “He’s kind of self-deprecating, comes in low-key. He never really raises his voice. But he seems to grow on you. That’s what I think is an intangible asset he has that others don’t.”

Iowa key

Walker has led in all Iowa polls since January, after he had his breakout performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines. Based on his early lead and being from a neighboring state, Walker will be under pressure to win the Iowa caucuses early next year or risk losing momentum going forward.

“It’s like NCAA football,” said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican, a conservative news outlet. “How many teams get upset early in the year when they were ranked No. 1 and rise back up to get that No. 1 spot?”

To win Iowa, Walker will have to spend a lot of time in the state, giving voters an opportunity to shake his hand, ask him questions and look him straight in the eye, Robinson said.

“If he puts in the work, I think he will maintain his front-runner status in the state throughout,” Robinson said.

The caucuses are dominated by the party’s socially conservative religious wing, which Walker has been courting aggressively in recent months.

“He’s viewed as a reformer,” Robinson said. “People expect that out of Walker based on the recall. If you’re going to run with that biography as a reformer, then you need to be a reformer on the campaign trail. That requires you to talk about proposals and really well-thought-out, legitimate ideas.”

Smith said it would be difficult for Walker to win in Iowa by appealing to social conservatives and then win in New Hampshire, a state that has the lowest religious participation rate in the country and an open primary that attracts more moderate voters.

That means after Iowa, Walker’s path to building momentum is more likely to lead through South Carolina and Nevada before a crush of states on Super Tuesday, March 1.

Wisconsin history

Walker joins Progressive Era lion Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and four-term governor and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as the only other Wisconsin governors to run for president, though they both ran after leaving office.

La Follette ran for president twice, mustering far fewer delegates than William Howard Taft at the 1912 Republican convention and winning 17 percent of the national popular vote and Wisconsin’s electoral college votes on the Progressive ticket in 1924.

Thompson’s short-lived 2008 presidential campaign foundered after he placed sixth in the Iowa Straw Poll in August 2007. The state’s Republican Party canceled this year’s straw poll, a positive development for Walker who had less to gain from a win than he had to lose from a weak finish.

Ed Miller, a UW-Stevens Point political science professor who has studied state politics for 43 years, said Wisconsin hasn’t seen many governors run for president because the state doesn’t carry much clout in terms of electoral college votes. Also, several governors over the past century have only served one or two terms before being voted out of office, leaving less of an opening for a presidential bid.

The most notable exception was Thompson, who has lamented not making a run at the presidency while he was in office and had advised Walker not to make the same mistake.

Miller said the mood in the state about Walker running is very different than it was for Thompson, who governed as a more moderate Republican than Walker.

Walker has pushed a conservative agenda. His signature law, Act 10, virtually ended public-sector collective bargaining, crippling the political influence of organized labor.

Aided by a Republican-controlled Legislature, Walker also signed laws requiring voter photo ID, allowing concealed carry permits and imposing the so-called “castle doctrine,” mandating ultrasounds before an abortion, expanding private-school vouchers statewide, rejecting federal funding for a Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and making Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state.

He is poised to sign a law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

He has also cut the state’s income tax rates, adopted various business tax credits, froze University of Wisconsin tuition and kept property tax limits for school districts and municipalities flat.

‘We need new, fresh leadership ... with big, bold ideas from outside of Washington.’ SCOTT WALKER
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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.