After '16 exit, Walker aims to restore relationships at home

AP News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2015 4:50 PM
After '16 exit, Walker aims to restore relationships at home

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Scott Walker returned to work Tuesday with three years left on his term as Wisconsin's governor, time that he'll likely need to recover from the blow of a failed run for the White House.

In the hours after Walker's abrupt exit from the Republican race for president, forced out by pallid fundraising and poll numbers that had crashed to less than 1 percent, his most ardent supporters were already predicting he'd bounce back.

But to do so, Walker will need to rebuild his base of support in Wisconsin — a place where he's spent little time since kicking off his campaign in July.

While Walker has won three elections for governor in the state, his job performance in the minds of residents stands at a low-water mark. His standing with Republicans who control the state legislature suffered, too, during a contentious budget debate this spring.

Critical comments Walker made about some of those GOP lawmakers while out on the presidential campaign trail didn't help, either.

"Gov. Walker has spent more time out of the state, and I've heard some complaints about that, I'm not going to lie," said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. "But I think many of those will fall by the wayside as he re-engages with Wisconsin."

Walker made his mark in Wisconsin by steamrolling Democratic opponents to push through Republican priorities such as banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, requiring voters to provide photo identification and making Wisconsin a right-to-work state.

But while focused on his presidential campaign, Walker struggled to keep up relations with his GOP allies in the state legislature.

More Republicans voted against the state budget this year than any other during Walker's time in office, and it was approved a week late — delaying the official launch of his presidential campaign. Two Republican lawmakers derided the spending plan, which cut funding for the University of Wisconsin by $250 million and held public K-12 school funding basically flat, as "crap."

As a candidate, Walker also emphasized disagreements he had with some of those Republican lawmakers when successfully curbing the union bargaining rights of state workers in 2011.

That earned Walker a sharp rebuke from Republicans who stood with him as protesters occupied the capitol for weeks in opposition to the measure. Those old enemies of Walker hope that experience, as well as the failed presidential campaign, will result in a humbler governor.

"If he's got an ounce of savvy he'll lick his wounds for a couple days then start calling Democrats," said Scot Ross, the leader of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. "If he doubles down on divisiveness, it's not going to move the needle on his poll numbers."

Don't count on it, said veteran Republican strategist Mark Graul. He and others in Wisconsin said they expect Walker will try to continue to influence the national political debate as governor, focusing on tax and entitlement reforms in the next few years.

"He's going to be more aggressive and active on policy matters," Graul said.

Walker spent his first full day out of the race in private meetings with his executive staff at the state capitol in Madison. He did not take questions from reporters Monday night after announcing he was suspending his campaign, and his office spokeswoman said he was not available for questions Tuesday.

But he did post a photo of his meeting with staff on Twitter and said, "Great to meet with staff this morning in my Capitol office!"

Meanwhile, Walker's presidential campaign was disbanding. A Republican with ties to the organization, who was not authorized to speak for Walker and spoke on condition of anonymity, said other 2016 candidates were busy trying to hire his staff.

There were plenty of jobs available on other campaigns because Walker quit so early in the race, the Republican said.

Walker's early exit from the presidential race mirrors his move in 2006, when he dropped out of the state's Republican gubernatorial primary after running out of money. That won him goodwill within the state GOP, and four years later Walker won the governor's mansion with the solid backing of the party establishment.

In both instances, Graul said, Walker "made a quick decisive decision when he felt he didn't have a path to win."

As Walker regrouped privately Tuesday, some of Walker's supporters noted it's not unprecedented for Republicans who fail the first time they run for president to come back stronger the next go round. Among them: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

"He's a young guy, and he'll be relevant in our party for many, many years," said Anthony Scaramucci, a New York-based investor and one of Walker's national finance co-chairmen.

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Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP