The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

High School Graduate Scott Walker Is the New Republican Frontrunner

With the billionaire Koch Brothers bestowing their papal blessing on someone whose name isn't Bush, it looks like there's a different horse leading the GOP herd.

by Kevin Lincoln
Apr 22 2015, 7:11pm

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Since January, when Mitt Romney officially bowed out of the 2016 presidential race, the assumption hanging over the Republican primary has been that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, son of a president, and brother of a president, is the runaway favorite to win the party's nomination. Of course, anointing frontrunners eight months before the Iowa Caucuses is a little like naming your child before you've met someone to have it with. But with the Koch Brothers bestowing their papal blessing this week on a candidate that does not share his name with a former White House resident, it might be time to ask if there's a different horse leading the GOP herd.

It's unclear how exactly the Kochtopus plans to spend its promised $889 million in the election, sort of in the way you don't quite know what the supervillain is up to for the first three quarters of a movie. But on Monday, the billionaire brothers gave their first indication of how they might get involved in the 2016 GOP primary, when, according to the New York Times' Nicholas Confessore, David Koch told donors at a fundraising event that Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin would be the Republican nominee, and that the brothers would support him along the way.

Confessore also reported that two people at the event heard David say Walker should be the nominee, although that's been disputed by a spokesperson, on the grounds that David Koch is not officially endorsing a candidate during the primaries. By Tuesday, though, aides for David and Charles Koch had conceded that the brothers might not stay so neutral. According to a report from Politico's Mike Allen, the Kochs are in fact considering jumping into the GOP primary, although aides insisted that they would still audition Jeb Bush, plus anyone else who was interested.

Even if that is true in any more than a nominal sense, it's clear that the Kochs like Walker, and that the cat is in the bag and the bag is in the Wisconsin River. In the meantime, Walker has been swapping the first-place seat with Bush in early 2016 polls, despite having no college degree and not a ton of national name-recognition. With the Kochs' news, it's time to acknowledge that if Walker isn't the GOP favorite, he's at least running even with Bush.

And why shouldn't the Kochs like him? This is Scott Walker, scourge of organized labor, the governor who erased a hundred years of liberalism in a state that gave birth to progressive icon Robert La Follette and the Wisconsin Idea, a part of the University of Wisconsin system's mission that says it will help create and suggest efficient public policy, from the state's budget before being caught in the act. I mean this literally: he tried to erase the "Wisconsin Idea" this year, by taking the relevant language out of his state budget proposal.

Since Walker took over as governor in 2010, his policies have been a case study in the kind of deregulation, tax cuts, and limited government spending that are at the heart of Kochtopus organizational platforms. First is his union-busting, which reached a head in 2011 when his proposed budget repair bill slashed collective bargaining power and take-home pay for state employees. The bill was so offensive to liberals that the state's Democratic legislators literally left Wisconsin to a vote, while pro-union demonstrators mobbed the state house. The legislation ultimately passed, but forced a recall election in 2012—which Walker also managed to survive.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin economy has taken a nosedive during that same period, some of which has been attributed to Walker's policies. As governor, he turned down federal funding for both broadband infrastructure and high-speed rail transportation, and his record of creating jobs — one of the biggest tenets of his campaign platform — has fallen well short of what he pledged to accomplish, as well as behind that of the rest of the country and Midwest.

Koch organizations have been pulling for Walker all along, playing a major role in helping the Wisconsin governor in all three of his gubernatorial elections, whether through Koch Industries or the Koch-affiliated Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity. Particularly in the collective-bargaining fight, the Kochs played a significant role, with Koch-backed executives working behind the scenes to push Walker into a fight against public employee unions. At one point during the 2011 showdown, Walker was tricked by a prank caller pretending to be David Koch, and revealed just how tight he and the billionaire really are.

As he gears up for 2016, Walker also appears to be feeding off support from both the Establishment and the Tea Party, making him one of the only Republican contenders who can appeal to the two distinct wings of the party's base. Some of that stems from the fact that Walker has made his name as an economic warrior—the clarion call of the center-right—while still taking hardline stances on abortion, gay marriage, and, well, whatever else seems necessary.

On immigration, he made a particularly hard-right turn Monday, telling Glenn Beck: "In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying, the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that's based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages."

Walker's attack on legal immigration strays from his previous comments about the issue—a shift that even conservative commentators seem baffled by. "This can be seen as both a flip-flip and a demagogic pander," the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis wrote Tuesday, expressing what has been the typical reaction. "This only serves to confirm deep-seated suspicions about the GOP. But branding be damned — there are votes to get!" Former Walker strategist Liz Mair, tweeted that she was glad she no longer had to defend both "a) that level of policy gymnastics or b) that specific dubious policy."

Still, if Walker has, in fact, managed to straddle the fault-line between Tea Party and Establishment — and can stay straddling it without being torn in half — then that would be a major milestone for an increasingly bisected Republican party. Even so, would it be enough to beat Hillary? David Koch thinks so, and he's the guy with the checkbook.

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