RACINE, Wisc. — Scott Walker is ready to go.
"I am ready to run again for governor," Walker told the Washington Examiner after a dedication ceremony of the 200-mile Frank Lloyd Wright Trail.
Walker is one of a string of Midwest Republican governors in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and his state of Wisconsin who have run and won in traditional blue states in difficult elections and emerged as strong executives as the country battled itself out of the recession.
"I have not been as optimistic about the future of the state of Wisconsin as I am right now. And I'm even more excited about how much greater it can be going forward," he said.
Walker indicated he will make an official announcement later this summer.
The former Milwaukee county executive and 2016 presidential candidate ran and won his seat three times (there was a recall election in between his two outright wins), and his party has twice taken the state attorney general's office, won control of both state legislative chambers (and retained them twice) and won a bruising state Supreme Court race.
Republicans also hold the majority of the state's House delegation (five of eight) and one of the two U.S. Senate seats.
Wisconsin's rising red sentiment has bled into neighboring Rust Belt states. Take a look at Minnesota, next door. While the president did not win the North Star State, he was just 44,000 votes short. He'd been expected to lose by eight percentage points.
Minnesota's GOP expanded its state House majority and won control of the state Senate for the first time in six years.
Michigan, Iowa and Indiana all have become redder over the past eight years. If this continues, the new mantra will be "As goes Wisconsin, so goes the Midwest."
It's fair to say Wisconsin and Walker are a microcosm for what Republicans have done right in the past eight years in winning 1,100 down-ballot seats across the country. It may offer Republicans a model of how they either keep that majority or lose it.
According to Walker, as long as they continue to govern, the party will keep growing. "We did something really important in Wisconsin that Republicans more than ever need to know in Washington. And that is, we did what we said we were going to do" once elected, he said.
Walker took heat for his budget cuts, which led to his recall challenge, but he stuck to his campaign pledges to reform the state government.
"We act boldly, then lay out a clear plan, and we act on it. And that's why not only did we get elected or re-elected, but now others like Donald Trump and Mike Pence were able to carry that similar message and people believed them," he said.
Walker said business growth, caring for the citizenry and strengthening infrastructure are the path to success that all his Midwest counterparts are attempting. "You do that through good governing," he said.
When Walker took over at the state capitol in 2011, he inherited a state deficit that had expanded to more than $3 billion under Gov. Jim Doyle. Walker cut that to $1.4 billion by 2014, although it has slid back up to $1.7 billion in recent estimates.
Unemployment has dropped, labor participation is up and property taxes have been frozen or lowered since he took office.
Walker says his goals are the same as those espoused by his neighbors: strong education and technical training, paying attention to rural communities with access to broadband and social services, and reforming entitlements to get people back into the workforce.
"We've just aggressively invested in things that build our workforce, and that's made it easier for us to both attract and retain and grow current businesses," he said.
"This is the kind of governing that has grown the Republican Party in all of our states."
Wisconsin opens for business
For 13 years, CEO Magazine has been ranking business-friendly states, and for most of that time, Wisconsin was near the bottom. It started to rise up the ranking a few years ago.
In 2010, the year Walker won the election, Wisconsin ranked 41st, but by by 2014 it had moved up to 14th. This May, it hit the top 10.
Walker is thrilled. "Yeah, it's pretty remarkable, and it really is a combination of things," he said, peeling off a list. "Taxes have gone down on income, they've gone down on property, they've gone down on manufacturers, gone down on farmers. ... If this latest budget I've proposed is passed the way I've proposed, which I think my tax cuts will probably stay intact, the cumulative impact over eight years," he said, will keep the state's upward trajectory and draw in companies from other parts of the country.
He also points to major changes in the state's regulatory environment with the signing of Act 10, a landmark law that has saved Wisconsin taxpayers $5.24 billion, according to an analysis conducted by the MacIver Institute, a free-market think tank based in the state.
"I'd like to say we enforce common sense, not bureaucratic red tape. I'm going to keep working on it," he said, pointing to major tort reform as another contributing factor.
His 2011 bill was written to limit noneconomic damages, double the amount of compensatory damages and raise the standards for qualifying people as experts when they testify.
In his newest budget, Walker takes on entitlements, beginning with welfare reform. Proposals up for approval by the legislature's budget-writing Joint Finance Committee include requiring childless adults in the state's Medicaid program either to be working or to accept job training of 80 hours a month.
This matches the requirement for childless adults who receive food stamps.
Walker's entitlement reform requires all childless adults applying for Medicaid to be screened for illegal drug use. Those who refuse the test are ineligible for coverage and lose their benefits for six months. People who test positive get treatment paid for by taxpayers through the Medicaid program.
"Twenty years ago, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Michigan Gov. John Engler were prominent national figures during the debate over welfare reform and were really the leaders in the country on that process," said Walker. Unfortunately, he added, the federal and state levels have seen a retreat on that issue over the past two decades.
"My approach is a simple principle. I believe we are good and decent people, particularly here in Wisconsin, and we want to help people who are down and out.
"But public assistance, as I've often said, should be more like a trampoline than like a hammock. So our goal is for anybody who is able to work, we want to get them the training and the support that they need to get into the workforce. We now have in our state more people employed than we've ever had before. Our unemployment rate's the lowest it's been since April of the year 2000. And we're also in the top 10 list of states in terms of the percentage of people in the workforce."
In April, Wisconsin's estimated unemployment rate dropped to 3.2 percent, a 17-year low and a point lower than in March. The national unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in April, its lowest rate in 10 years and well below the 10 percent peak in 2009.
Walker said that under his proposal he wants people employed at least 80 hours a month. "And if for some reason they can't find employment, we say they can substitute enrollment in one of our job training programs for that amount, or a combination of two," he said.
"They have to be able to pass a drug test, and we put money behind rehabilitation programs if they fail. Because we believe when we get someone healthy and clean and we get someone with basic job skills, I can find a job for anybody in this state."
Reconnecting with the rural heartland
Rural areas have been under the microscope since President Trump's election victory, in part because voters there turned out in large numbers for him.
For decades, manufacturing and population declines and rising poverty in rural Midwestern states had gone underreported by national news media. They were regarded as stable. It was urban areas that needed more help, or so it was assumed.
Concern for urban issues led experts to miss rural collapse that was occuring under their noses. Rural decline can be attributed to several factors: The manufacturing base slipped away, so male labor force participation fell and poverty rose.
Families broke up, divorce rates increased, and reliance on federal entitlements and disability payments increased.
Then came drugs.
"It is a crisis across America," said Walker, who points to the leading advocate for addressing the problem in the state, Rep. John Nygren, whose dealings with opioid addiction are personal.
"His daughter has struggled with addiction," Walker said.
Nygren, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, has introduced a series of bills called the HOPE Agenda, for Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education.
Wisconsin, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa, has seen its rate of drug-related deaths nearly double from 2004 to 2012, according to the state Department of Health Services. Opioid-related overdoses were the leading cause of those deaths.
"Nygren points out if we get them healthy and if they take job training, we can help them, and part of being healthy doesn't mean just quick detox; it means ongoing assistance to keep them clean," Walker said.
This year, Walker called lawmakers into a special session to take up the bills that passed the state assembly and senate with ease, all nine bills designed to fight the rise in overdose drug deaths caused by heroin and opioids.
These nine bills increase funding to train the staff in high schools to screen students for addiction, construct a charter high school for recovering student addicts, start three rural treatment programs for remote areas of the state and offer more training for doctors in treating addiction.
Another big problem for rural areas is the lack of Internet broadband connection. It's an essential tool for farmers, small businesses, school districts and entrepreneurs. More often than not, their connections are painfully slow, weak or nonexistent.
The digital divide from urban areas is placing rural commerce at a disadvantage, Walker said.
Nearly 40 percent of the rural population of America lacks broadband, as compared with only 4 percent for urban areas.
This drastically limits rural populations' ability to engage in a critical component of modern life, Walker said. "I did a listening session in all 72 counties, and in every one of them but one, Milwaukee, every county brought up broadband access," he said.
"Not only for education, which is obvious, but for business, for quality of life, even for tourism. Somebody may want to go get away from it all, but they still want to sit by the lake and watch a Netflix movie.
"I want to make sure every part of my state over the next two years of the budget is covered with broadband access. It has access to high-speed Internet connections."
For Walker, broadband in rural areas today is similar to what electricity was for his grandparents.
"My mom was born on a farm that didn't have indoor plumbing, and so electricity changed the way my grandparents and my great-grandparents farmed. Once the electrical lines were built, the transmission lines, you didn't need the government to do it for you," he said.
"The same thing's true here. Once the broadband, the cyber network is done, the local telecommunication company can run it. But there's no way you can get a return on investment for the sparse areas of population not only in Wisconsin but around the country.
"It all comes back to my foundation in believing in small government in just about everything we do. We get people up and wired, and then we get out of the way and let the private sector work."
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Walker is looking to reform entitlements under the Medicaid program, not Medicare.