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Scott Walker's Emphasis On Unions Failed To Energize National Base


Scott Walker ended his presidential campaign yesterday after a rough summer, where he dropped from the top-tier of candidates to an also-ran. The Wisconsin governor made a name for himself four years ago by busting unions and becoming the first governor to survive a recall election. As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, those victories never gave Walker long-term traction in the Republican primary, and his national campaign damaged his standing back home.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: When Scott Walker won his recall election in June of 2012, the Republican Party's base here was electrified.


SCOTT WALKER: Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions.


JOHNSON: There was already talk that the win would give Walker a platform to run for president. Fast-forward to this month when his support began to evaporate. He turned to his signature issue. During a speech at Ronald Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College in central Illinois, Walker pledged to go after federal unions, too.


WALKER: We're going to start with that on day one, and we're going to lay out more when it comes to shifting the power from the big government union bosses to the hard-working people of this country.

JOHNSON: A line that would've brought Wisconsin Republicans to their feet didn't even draw a polite applause. Some students in the crowd, like Jordan Melkebeke, said what Walker was highlighting wasn't a priority to them.

JORDAN MELKEBEKE: I mean, I don't know too much about it so I guess I can't really say that I have a strong opinion about it.

JOHNSON: The governor doubled down in a speech in Las Vegas, promising to end federal employee unions, institute a national right to work law for private unions and gut other labor protections dating back to the days of FDR.


WALKER: Now, nobody else in this race is talking about this.

JOHNSON: In fact, they were not, and maybe for good reason. On issue after issue, Scott Walker found a way to work in his battle with unions, as he did in February, when asked how he'd handle Islamic terrorists if he were president.


WALKER: If I could take on a hundred-thousand protesters, I could do the same across the world.

JOHNSON: That was widely considered one of his many gaffes, leading to this yesterday.


WALKER: I believe that I'm being called to lead by helping to clear the field.

JOHNSON: Scott Walker's abrupt withdrawal from the race caught some by surprise yesterday. Speaking outside the Madison Hotel where he made his announcement, Walker donor Fred Mohs said the union issue gave Walker an opening, but he needed something more.

FRED MOHS: His fame on this one issue, state employee unions, wasn't enough to keep him going.

JOHNSON: Columnist John Nichols, who writes for The Nation, characterized Walker's collapse as epic.

JOHN NICHOLS: He thought that he was a rock star who had the issue that was going to take him wherever he needed to go. In reality, he was somebody who had gotten an entry card. He got to step in and everybody was going to take a look at him, but he didn't get anything beyond that.

JOHNSON: Scott Walker isn't the only Republican governor who's tussled with unions. Ohio's John Kasich pushed a nearly identical labor law four years ago only to see his version overturned by voters. Unlike Walker, Kasich rarely talks about his fight with organized labor. He's still running for president. Scott Walker is now watching from the sidelines. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.
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