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The Ghost of Scott Walker Will Haunt the Fourth Republican Debate

Scott Olson/Getty

When the Republican National Committee chose Wisconsin to host its fourth Republican debate ten months ago, it seemed an unconventional choice. The Badger state has never hosted a Republican debate. Its late primary, in April, means it will likely play a negligible role in choosing the Republican nominee. Furthermore, Wisconsin has reliably voted blue in presidential elections since 1988. But instead of adhering to more conventional criteria for a debate location, the RNC chose Wisconsin for another reason entirely. It hoped that the setting would showcase a rising star in the party, Governor Scott Walker, whose record supposedly demonstrated how the GOP was translating conservative ideas into successful governance.

Now, that choice seems to have backfired. Not only was Walker one of the first candidates to drop out of the presidential race, but the debate will also highlight the problems that have arisen during his tenure as governor, including a rising deficit. That, in turn, could pose problems for the remaining candidates, many of whom have eagerly endorsed Walker’s approach. In significant ways, the ghost of Scott Walker could be the most important figure on the debate stage come Tuesday night. 

The RNC chose Wisconsin to host its fourth debate of the primary season in January, a time when the state—whose largest city, Milwaukee, elected socialist mayors for more than 40 years—looked like a model for conservative governance. Walker had won statewide elections three times in the previous four years, claiming the governorship in 2010, fending off a recall in 2012, and winning reelection in 2014. He had also implemented sweeping conservative reforms—virtually eliminating collective bargaining for public-sector employees and cutting funds for Planned Parenthood—and later in the year would go on to diminish the clout of private-sector unions and outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. With his record of implementing conservative reforms even with strong Democratic opposition, he represented all that Republican leaders in Washington—whose caucus was then wracked with petty squabbling and internal divisions over immigration and the deficit—lacked.

A speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January—only a few weeks after the RNC chose Wisconsin to host the fourth debate—cemented his status as a darling of the right. Walker reveled in the protests that swept his state after he attacked its public-sector unions, telling the crowd that “someone sent a letter saying they would gut my wife like a deer.” Later, National Journal called it a “dynamite speech” that may have “changed the course of a presidential nominating race.”

But since he abruptly dropped out of the Republican race in September, informing his supporters in a hastily assembled press conference that he wanted “to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top,” Walker has practically disappeared from national headlines. He has returned to his state duties, and is embroiled in a fight over an Oscar Meyer hot dog production plant that shut down just outside the capital of Madison last week.  

However, he and his wife will reportedly be in attendance at the debate on Tuesday, an uncomfortable reminder of what can happen when the orthodox conservatism embraced by Walker and his former rivals is implemented: soaring deficits, plummeting approval ratings, and thousands of protesters in the streets.

The moderators will also likely put the focus on Wisconsin. In previous debates, hosts have made a habit of asking questions that pertain to local issues: marijuana legalization in Colorado, the drought in California. Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, which are hosting the fourth debate, plan to center the night on economics, so it stands to reason that they will ask questions about Walker and the economic overhauls he enacted as governor.

This could put the candidates in an awkward position. For the most part, they have largely praised Walker for his conservative record as governor. In late September, Marco Rubio called him “one of the best governors in the country.” Shortly thereafter, Jeb Bush noted that Walker “got to disrupt the order of our state capitals, and people were better off because of it.” Ted Cruz has also praised his reformist streak, saying, “Wisconsin is considerably stronger as a result of the changes he pushed through under incredibly difficult and contentious conditions."

They have also sought to get Walker behind their campaigns. On Friday evening, Politico reported that Rubio called Walker after the last Republican debate to request his endorsement (the Wisconsin governor declined to throw his weight behind anyone just yet).

Before counting endorsements, they may first want to take a look at his record. Over the last two years, Walker has exploded Wisconsin’s deficit. In January 2014, the state’s budget surplus had grown to nearly $1 billion. By November, just six months after Walker implemented sweeping property and income tax cuts, the Wisconsin Office of Administration projected a $2.2 billion shortfall for the next two years.

Donald Trump, for one, has hammered Walker on these very statistics. "Wisconsin is doing terribly," Trump said in a July speech in Iowa. “[I]t’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them.” Wisconsinites have also soured on their governor. His approval rating sunk to just 39 percent in an October poll of Wisconsin voters, almost as low as it was in 2011 when protesters took to the streets in Madison.

This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the GOP primary field. Like Walker, the leading three establishment candidates, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush all want to cut income taxes. And like Walker, whose first state budget included two separate capital gain tax breaks for the wealthy, both Cruz and Rubio would lower the rate on capital gains. In fact, Rubio would eliminate it all together.

The Republican candidates will have to address their tax plans Tuesday night. A Milwaukee backdrop may highlight what happens when these policies are implemented, and what happens to the politicians who implement them.