Wisconsin’s Gubernatorial Race Is In The Bag

Posted: May 14, 2010 12:01 PM

The Wisconsin gubernatorial election is a mixed bag. A mixed brown bag, that is.

After Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle announced his retirement, GOP primary candidate Scott Walker has made brown bags a center of his campaign, playing on something that has saved him money over his own lifetime. Those brown bags are quickly gaining a kitsch appeal among conservatives, and have transformed the race from a relative toss-up to one that might allow Republicans to eat the Democrats for, well, lunch.

“I started packing a brown bag lunch when I was at college at Marquette, and at IBM, and still did when I was in the State Assembly for eight years,” said Walker. “I’m saving money, and people I know are saving money, whether it’s packing a brown bag or doing something else. That’s what I think the government should be doing, too.”

This easily-digestible conservative rhetoric has drawn attention from the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who recently endorsed Walker in a blazing statement that called him “the real deal.” That’s because his rhetoric matches up to his style, with Walker’s track record of cutting taxes during his time as county executive and actually returning a large chunk of his salary to the state when he served in office. Over the course of eight years, he gave back $370,000 because he didn’t think a county executive should be paid more than the state’s governor.

Walker managed to wrestle up more than a little support for his policies during that time, as well. He reduced the size of Milwaukee’s government 23 percent, and reduced the debt by 10 percent. The way he did that was by taking on a liberal board of county advisors and relying on public support, in a move that was similar to today’s tea parties, he says.

“I think about what we did 8 years ago in Milwakukee county is something like the tea parties. It didn’t start out as a political party… it was people who said they weren’t going to check out, they weren’t going to give in, and they were going to take their government back,” said Walker.

Walker has focused his message on a “brown bag guide to government,” which includes three pillars: 1) don’t spend more than you have, 2) smaller government is better government, and 3) people create jobs, not government. Walker’s brown bag shtick has become so popular that his campaign held a contest to see who could design the most catchy slogan for a brown bag, with the winners submitting slogans like “Avoid fat government and budget obesity,” and “Caution: this brown bag contains common sense.” He says these brown bags are going to stick around long after his campaign is over.

“I’d love to see more people we get signed up in the brown bag movement,” he said. “Having this brown bag movement tied in on an issue and a theme could plug [supporters] in long after the election to other issues that come up, and it could make a tremendous difference.”

Walker faces a primary challenge from former Rep. Mark Neumann, who is also capitalizing on conservative appeal. With a background in education, real estate, and home building, Neumann is able to self-finance and is strongly in favor of term limits, which he kept while in Congress. He lost a challenge to Sen. Russ Feingold in 1998.