Christie's Demise Has Walker Licking His Chops

As Governor Chris Christie sinks under a bridge load of scandal, other potential Republican presidential candidates are looking hungry.

Among them is Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who triggered mass protests when he "dropped the bomb" and ended public employees' collective bargaining rights. Since he survived a grassroots recall campaign, Walker has been hitting the rubber chicken circuit, visiting his billionaire backers in other states, and of course flogging his new book, "Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge."

(If you haven't read Ian Murphy's hilarious review of "Unintimidated," in the February issue of The Progressive, you should check it out right now.)

Walker, who gave a rather uninspiring speech at last year's Republican National Convention, will have to outpace the equally rightwing Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, who is much more accustomed to the national spotlight.

Republican party insiders think he might do it. An article in Politico today even nominated Walker as the new flavor of the month.

"Walker’s reputation is as a conservative’s conservative who can still win over moderates," Politico's Anna Palmer opines. "That’s an attractive combination for party insiders who need a candidate who can survive a GOP primary and still pivot to the national stage with broad appeal."

As a governor, Walker can run as a Washington outsider, while Ryan, chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee and a key player in the budget deal recently signed by the President, can hardly make that claim.

Union-busting and far right positions on issues like birth control and abortion play well with the base, which is a big plus in the Republican primaries. And despite his extremely divisive governorship, Walker has three times more money than his largely unknown Democratic rival, Mary Burke. He seems poised to win re-election despite a lackluster economic record, massive protests and a state that's so bitterly divided over his policies.

Winning three times in a row in Wisconsin, a state that has traditionally gone Democratic in Presidential elections, makes Walker a Republican dream come true on paper. They see him as a rightwing, base-pleasing union-buster with crossover appeal.

Mary Burke, who avoided appearing in public with President Obama on a recent Presidential visit to Wisconsin, is at 41 percent in the most recent polling. Meanwhile, Walker sits at 47 percent. That's about the same margin Walker consistently held over his two-time Democratic rival Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee who lost to Walker in 2010 and again in the 2012 recall election.

The Burke campaign is clearly focused on trying to win swing voters by avoiding association with the grassroots activism that drove the recall. They've even stated that Burke agrees with Walker on cutting public employee benefits, and now she's dodging public association with the President.

However, Burke did recently announce her support for a minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour in Wisconsin.

Paul Fanlund, editor of The Capital Times in Madison, writes that Burke might have a winning strategy as she seeks to appeal specifically to swing voters, as opposed to the base. But it's hard to see how any candidate could focus so narrowly on undecided voters and still count on getting core supporters to the polls in the numbers necessary to overcome such a powerful opponent.

But Republicans around the country who are getting ready to jump on the Walker for President bandwagon should be warned: Christie isn't the only potential 2016 candidate dogged by scandals.

Of that impressive $5 million Walker raised in the second half of 2013, $86,000 went directly to defense lawyers.

There is an ongoing John Doe probe that leads directly to the Walker campaign. And in an earlier probe, "Walker's campaign paid nearly $650,000 for lawyers representing the governor and his campaign committee," according to Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel.

He might be Politico's flavor of the month, but Republicans should watch out: Walker may have a bridge or two he's trying to sell you.

Photo: Flickr user Edward David, creative commons licensed.