He’s a problem-solving Republican governor who fought entrenched special interests in a traditionally Democratic state.
But he isn’t from New Jersey.
And if Scott Walker gets re-elected in Wisconsin next year and chooses to run for president, he threatens to steal New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s thunder.
Early speculation on the 2016 Republican presidential race essentially splits the primary electorate into two camps.
On one side, there are those who are fed up with unruly Tea Partiers and argue that conservative purity tests in recent Republican primaries have crippled GOP candidates in the general election.
On the other side, there are conservatives who are fed up at having lackluster nominees foisted upon them — such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — who were not ideologically conservative.
Though President George W. Bush won two terms in office, he drastically expanded the size and scope of government with the help of a Republican Congress.
Come this time next year, Walker could be in a much better position than Christie to thread the needle between these two groups.
Christie doesn’t have the implicit trust of the GOP’s conservative base, so his hopes rest on reassuring them and arguing he’s the most plausible candidate because of his successes in a blue state.
But that argument will be a lot more difficult to make if Walker enters the race.
Should he win re-election, Walker would be able to make a similar set of claims to Christie's. Though it’s been more closely divided than New Jersey in recent presidential elections, Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 rout of Walter Mondale.
As governor, Walker understood that, ultimately, persuadable voters would make up their minds not based on ideology, but on performance.
“Part of the reason I believed our reforms would work so well in the state was because I believe that results trump everything else,” he explained at a Nov. 15 lunch hosted by National Review.
“You can have all the scare tactics in the world and have all the attacks ... it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you can’t convince people of something they don’t know to be true,” Walker said.
This is why, he argued, the troubled rollout of President Obama’s health care law will continue to be a political headache for Democrats.
Walker disagreed with the Republicans’ failed effort to defund Obamacare because he said it diverted focus from the health care law to the shutdown.
“We’re all for principled fights and things, but we’re all for outcomes,” Walker said of governors. “We want to see an endgame.”
Not only can Walker cite executive experience under tremendous odds, he is still revered by a broad swath of conservatives for his bruising battle with the Wisconsin teachers’ unions over his education reforms in a way that Christie is not.
On a gut level, most conservatives would say of Walker that he is “one of us” — that he thinks and governs like a conservative rather than being a candidate who merely spouts conservative talking points when it suits his political ambitions.
At the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney — desperate to reassure his skeptics on the Right — gave a speech in which he used a variation of the word “conservative” 24 times.
In contrast, Walker spoke without uttering the word once. He didn’t need to, because he could speak about his tangible conservative reforms.
Walker, who is out with a new book this week, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge, about his battles in Wisconsin, has started to sound more like a presidential candidate.
When I asked him whether he would pledge to serve a full four-year term if re-elected governor in 2014, he said he’s never made such a commitment at any point in his political career. He wouldn’t rule out a run for president when pressed.
To have any chance of running for president, though, Walker will have to win re-election. In June 2012, Walker survived a recall attempt with 53 percent of the vote.
At the lunch, he noted that his margin was padded because a certain percentage of those who voted for him were simply against the protracted recall process — a rare acknowledgement for a politician.
And that marks another important contrast. Primary voters may find Walker’s Midwestern humility more appealing when placed against Christie’s in-your-face Jersey attitude.
It’s too far in advance to be anointing frontrunners in the 2016 presidential race. But if Walker runs, he could prove to be Christie’s worst nightmare.