Jeb Bush Sees Rising Star in Wisconsin Governor's Race

Republican Scott Walker touts "brown bag" approach to government.

May 5, 2010, 5:22 PM

May 12, 2010 -- Wisconsin Republicans have yet to nominate a candidate for governor. Indeed, the state's primary is not until Sept. 14. But two national GOP heavyweights -- former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- are bullish on the prospects of Scott Walker, the self-described, brown-bag-packing county executive of Milwaukee.

"The guy is a fantastic candidate," Bush said. "The event that we did together, he gave a stump speech that sounded like it was the last three days of the campaign. I mean, he was on fire. It was, it was, he's the real deal."

The Wisconsin governor's race is one of the 2010 contests that could have implications in the 2012 White House race. Much more so than senators, governors tend to command the kind of state political machinery that can make a difference in a presidential contest.

ABC News 2010 Election Map: Follow the House, Senate and Governors' Races

Although President Obama carried the state by 14 points over John McCain in 2008, the state was a major battleground in 2004 when John Kerry won the state by 1 percent and in 2000 when Al Gore carried the state by less than 1 percent, a mere 5,708 votes.

Walker, 42, has put anecdotes about his personal frugality at the center of his campaign. In all his campaign messaging, he touts himself as someone who "drives a 1998 Saturn with 100,000 miles on it" and who "packs the same brown-bag lunch before heading to the office to save money: two ham and cheese sandwiches on wheat with mayo."

His first television ad touted that he has given back $370,000 in salary over eight years because he thought it was wrong for the county executive to be paid more than the state's governor.

"My wife was like, 'We're doing what?'" Walker said in his first television ad. "But we believe that government spends too much and that included my salary."

Making political hay out of the lunch that he packs for himself, Walker has branded his events around the state as part of a "Brown Bag Movement" that has three tenets: (1) "don't spend more than you have"; (2) "smaller government is better government"; and (3) "people create jobs, not government."

Walker's movement has a website that includes images of brown paper bags with pointed messages on them such as, "I'd be eating out if the government wasn't gobbling up all my money." Another message is, "We spent $780 billion on a stimulus plan and all I got was this brown bag."

Walker: 'Hard to Digest' All Newt Gingrich's E-Mails

During a recent fundraising trip to Washington, D.C., Walker talked to ABC News about the hands-on approach that Gingrich has taken toward his candidacy.

"Newt, my gosh, Newt must e-mail me like every other day, sometimes, I think, with new ideas," Walker said. "Sometimes, it's hard to digest it all."

One part of Walker's appeal to Republican bigwigs is his Milwaukee base. If Walker outperforms the typical Republican in Milwaukee, he said, he believes that traditional Republican strength in more rural parts of the state will power him to victory in November.

"The year I got 60 percent, Obama took two-thirds of the vote in my county," Walker said. "We're going to run to win in Milwaukee County, but if I get, say, 45 percent, it's over."

Another part of Walker's appeal to Republicans is his fiscal record in Milwaukee. The size of the government workforce is down 23 percent from where it was in 2002 and the county debt is down by 10 percent, he said.

Democrats have responded to Walker's "Brown Bag Movement" with their own "Bag Scott Walker" campaign. Walker's critics are eager to use Jeb Bush's support to tie the Wisconsin Republican to the economic record of Jeb Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush.

"Wisconsin cannot afford another Bush recession, which is just what Scott Walker would bring us," Michael Tate, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said.

Jeb Bush Has Endorsed Other GOP Hopefuls

Walker is also being criticized by Democrats for spending lavishly on the meals associated with campaign fundraising. A March analysis by the Associated Press ran under the headline, "Walker Meals Aren't Always 'Brown Bag.'"

"The campaign's bills for Walker's meals, campaign meetings that included meals for Walker, his staff and others, and food and drinks for fundraising events amount to at least $24,500 since mid-2008," the A.P. wrote.

"By contrast, the campaigns of his GOP primary rival Mark Neumann and Democratic opponent Tom Barrett spent some money on food and drinks for fundraisers but virtually nothing on meals for themselves and their campaign meetings. Both entered the race later than Walker."

Bush, who met Walker last year at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Sun Valley, Idaho, said he believes Walker's track record in Wisconsin's most populous county gives his "brown bag" message credibility.

"There are symbols in campaigns and then there are gimmicks," Bush said. "This is a symbol because he's proven he's a thrifty, frugal man. He lives his life in a way, in the way he's served as county executive. So, it's a good connection to how he would serve as governor because he's already done it."

Walker is one of five Republicans whom Bush is backing in competitive gubernatorial primaries: the others are former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in California, former state Sen. Bradley Byrne in Alabama, Attorney General Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Attorney General Bill McCollum in Florida.

When endorsing a gubernatorial candidate in a competitive GOP primary, Bush said he looks for someone who is committed to education reform. He also looks for conservative change agents.

"The duty of a leader is to change the way things work if they don't work," Bush said. "And a lot of things aren't working these days."

ABC News' Matt Loffman contributed to this report.