Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is making his first campaign foray into Minnesota as an official presidential candidate. But he enters the state toting some new baggage.
Walker was to appear this morning in Brooklyn Center at the Cass Screw and Machine Company, where he was to unveil a national health care plan that he said would replace Obamacare. Later, he’s be the star attraction at a fundraiser at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul.
Social conservatives, conservative workers, small-government types, business people, even sports fans all are in play as Walker comes into his neighboring state.
But there’s that baggage. Last week, Walker signed off on a bill that will forward $250 million in public money for the construction of a new basketball arena in downtown Milwaukee. Without the new arena the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks had threatened to leave the state.
To make matters stickier for the governor, the finance director of Walker’s presidential campaign, Jon Hammes, is a minority owner of the Bucks. Additionally, Hammes’ family is tied to a company that donated $150,000 to a Walker Super PAC.
If you like political balance, there’s this: The majority ownership of the team is a New York hedge fund run by Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry. Lasry is a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. And if you like economic balance, there’s this: Walker’s latest budget cut funding to the University of Wisconsin system by $250 million.
In justifying the Bucks deal, Walker sounded like all of those other public officials that have caved to threats by pro sports teams to leave cities if they didn’t receive public funds for new stadiums. Holding on to the Bucks, Walker said, is a good investment for Wisconsin. It will, he said, both enliven downtown Milwaukee and give back a good return on the public investment.
How’s that line playing among conservatives in Minnesota?
“It’s a dumb move, and it’s one we can’t overlook,’’ said Jake Duesenberg, executive director of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance. “If you’re going to be willing to bail out the billionaire owners of a sports team, then you’re surely going to bail out the people on Wall Street any time they call for help.’’
At a gathering last week in the north metro, Duesenberg said that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was “easily the favorite” among the 150 people who attended the meeting. Duesenberg believes that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also will attract considerable support among those active in the state’s Tea Party.
Given its border position to Wisconsin, Minnesota would seem to be a crucial state for Walker.
Both the GOP and the DFL hope that Minnesota will be a bigger player in presidential politics now that both parties will hold their caucuses on March 1, the same day as the Colorado caucus and primaries in Florida, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont and Virginia.
Where can Walker draw his support in Minnesota?
Four relatively well-known state politicians have endorsed the Wisconsin governor. House Speaker Kurt Daudt has agreed to be the honorary chairman of Walker’s state campaign, while three failed GOP gubernatorial candidates — state Sen. Dave Thompson, former House Speaker Kurt Zellers and former Minority Leader Marty Seifert — all have signed on as co-chairs.
What of that support for public subsidy of a basketball arena?
Thompson, long an opponent of such subsidies, said that all elected officials have taken positions “that I might not approve of.’’ That means that only such candidates as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, who never have held elective office, are free of making unpopular decisions.
Thompson believes that Walker can find support among a cross section of Minnesota business people, working-class people and social conservatives.
“His appeal is that he is growing an economy that allows people to keep more of their own money, he has a philosophy that allows people to make more of their own decisions and has government less involved in their lives,’’ Thompson said.
Certainly, Walker will work hard to appeal to Minnesota’s social conservatives, who can be big players in the GOP caucuses. Four years ago, for example, Rick Santorum was the winner of the GOP straw poll at the state caucuses. That victory came thanks to social conservatives, who turned out in droves to support him.
At this point, Autumn Leva, director of policy and communications for the Minnesota Family Council, doubts that the state’s Christian/social conservatives have moved en masse to any of the Republican candidates. But she did say that social conservatives are heartened “by the sheer breadth and depth of social conservative values’‘ being discussed by almost all of the candidates.
“The stances they have taken regarding one man, one woman marriage and defunding Planned Parenthood for too long have been ignored,” Leva said. “Those issues are not being ignored now. What we have seen in recent years is that the liberal, progressive voters have been willing to take a stand and they have moved their agenda forward. We want a candidate who will be willing to take a stand, someone who doesn’t just talk about these things but is willing to walk the walk.’’
Just last month, Walker signed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bills, a bill that would not allow abortions after 20 weeks. He’s made state budget cuts to Planned Parenthood that have forced the closure of five of the state’s clinics, including clinics where no abortions were performed.
But in this field, it’s difficult to be a leader in pronouncing social conservative values.
There’s one other major area where Walker will have considerable work to do. Once upon a time, he could count on the support of a significant number of blue-collar workers. But union leaders in both Wisconsin and Minnesota believe that he has burned most of his bridges to the working class.
Jennifer Munt, a spokeswoman for the public employees union AFSCME, says Walker might have once had success with some in the working class by using “divide and conquer’’ tactics. In 2010, for example, Walker had the support of some construction unions by “pledging” a couple of things: that the only unions he was attacking were the public employee unions; and that he would not support a right-to-work law in Wisconsin.
“I have no interest in a right-to-work law in this state,’’ Walker said in 2012. “We’re not going to pursue it in the future. The reason is that private sector unions are my partner in economic development.’’
Last spring, Walker signed a bill that made Wisconsin the 25th “right-to-work” state in the nation. “It’s another arrow in the quiver” of economic development, he explained. He’s made cracking down on unions a major theme of his campaign.
“His record is a classic case of saying one thing and doing another,’’ said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO. “He’s lied. He’s stabbed people in the back. Ask workers in the state how they feel about Scott Walker now.’’
Despite his next-door-neighbor status, candidate Walker’s first trip to Minnesota can’t be his last.