APPLETON, Wis. — Republican Gov. Scott Walker seems to know his populist management style could win over more than just Badger State residents.
He’s talking results, and he’s staying in the national spotlight.
"We did do bold, positive things that are working in Wisconsin, so people are taking note of that," Walker — who is in the third race for his seat in four years — told the Tribune-Review during three days of campaigning.
Some political strategists mention Walker as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, not because of any convention speech or viral video he made, or even because he travels the country to campaign for others. The 46-year-old governor, a reformist who imposed conservative policies in his state, intrigues many in the GOP because he won a fierce, 20-month battle with public-sector unions and a subsequent recall election.
Democrats and unions want Walker out of office, especially since defeating him might deter other governors who would want to mimic his model.
This race is a dead heat, according to a July poll by Marquette University Law School. Walker led Democratic challenger Mary Burke 46 percent to 45 percent among registered voters; among likely voters, Burke led, 47 percent to 46 percent.
"For over a year, I’ve been telling folks this was going to be a close race," Walker told volunteers. In this divided state, he said, "any reliable Democrat would immediately hold 47 percent of the vote."
So he works for votes, shaking hands in crowds and stopping to pose for selfies with voters.
Walker, a minister’s son, had an all-American upbringing: He was involved in sports, band and church and was an Eagle Scout. He worked part-time as a dishwasher and flipped burgers at McDonald’s in high school.
A trip to Washington with Boys Nation sparked his interest in public service, according to his campaign website.
His penchant for reforming government emerged during his eight years as Milwaukee County’s only Republican county executive. Walker cut the county’s debt and its workforce. His budgets did not increase taxes.
In 2010, voters sent him to the governor’s mansion.
Today’s anti-Washington sentiment is an opportunity for conservatives to educate young people and cynical voters, Walker said.
His two college-age sons are working on his campaign.
Young professionals, he said, want an economy that enables them to succeed, but not a top-down approach.
"They want an organic approach, where everyone has an equal opportunity, and then leave it up to individuals to determine their own individual outcomes.
"Part of our message is: ‘We are the ones that want to help you get what you want. We want to get government out of the way, the bureaucracy out of the way. (Democrats) are the ones who’d want to regulate you, stifle you.’ "
Not everyone’s a fan
Farmers, crafters and artisans hawking wares have replaced the protesters who filled the sidewalk around the Wisconsin State Capitol early in Walker’s tenure. The demonstrators marched against his "budget repair bill" — Act 10 of 2011 — which restricted the power of public employee unions to bargain collectively.
Walker’s office said the protests cost taxpayers $200,000 to repair damage to the building that houses the governor’s office, the legislature and the state Supreme Court.
Some of his critics still hold regular sit-ins — called the Solidarity Sing Along — at the Capitol, during which they sing folk songs altered with anti-Walker messages.
Though Walker has support among conservatives in rural areas, it’s hard to find backers in Madison — the capital city and home to the University of Wisconsin, Drew University and several other colleges — or Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city.
David Nedveck, who put potted perennials on the Capitol sidewalk in front of his colorful delivery van for The Flower Factory, said he does not like Walker’s approach to government. But he acknowledged that he benefited from lower-tax policies.
"Someone has to make up for those benefits," Nedveck said. "I suspect it will be local governments who will have to cut services or raise taxes locally."
A lifelong Democrat, he’s not sold on Burke, a former executive at family-owned Trek Bicycle and a Madison County School Board member.
"She is untested, and she has to earn my vote," he said.
Burke told the Trib in a telephone interview that she knows she needs to earn voters’ trust and intends to show them a clear choice.
"The race is about jobs, and Scott Walker’s approach seems to be about giving tax breaks to those at the top, and you cut some red tape and somehow jobs are created," she said. "That is not how you create jobs."
During campaign stops at a manufacturer in Platteville and an engineering facility and chemical lab in Lacrosse, Walker countered that under Burke’s leadership, the state would return to the days of job losses similar to those of his predecessor, former Gov. Jim Doyle, for whom Burke was Commerce secretary.
Walker credits his parents and family life with helping him remain unflappable amid personal attacks.
He recalls a November 2011 incident in which he was raking leaves at his Wauwatosa home with his sons and a young man who was living with them.
"I live on a busy street, and this car starts to come by. He’s honking his horn. He lowers his window. I look up — the guy raises his arm and flips me off," Walker said. "And this kid Galvin says to me, ‘Mr. Walker, how do you put up with that? That is just obnoxious.’
"I told him in the end, if you just stay positive and don’t get drawn into it, good things will happen. … I was thinking I was teaching him a valuable lesson."
About five minutes later, he said, the foursome heard car horns honking again. Two cars slowed as they approached.
"I am starting to think I should rake the leaves at night," Walker said. But the occupants lowered their windows to give him a thumbs-up.
"Galvin turned to me and asked if I knew that was going to happen," Walker said. "I said no, but it did kind of prove my point. … If you stay not only firm but decent, people will notice that."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter