In the spring of 2011, Texas governor Rick Perry had one job for his state legislature —pass a mandatory ultrasound bill, ASAP. The politicians obliged, and an emergency bill mandating an ultrasound and then a 24-hour wait before an abortion could be performed in Texas was signed into law by Perry on May 25.
Just over two months later, Perry announced his intention to run for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, an announcement so late that it occurred on the same day as the traditional Iowa Straw Poll. He declared his intentions at a RedState sponsored political gathering, just a week after hosting a massive prayer rally in Houston, and together these events made him the instant frontrunner in the 2012 endorsement fight.
By January, his campaign was dead.
There may be a lesson in here for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Like his fellow governor to the south, he had long been embraced as a model of good conservative leadership, an image of what Republicans really mean when they say they want limited government (no taxes, little government regulation, massive protections for businesses and some biblically-based social legislation on the side). He has weathered a recall, a re-election, the investigations into misuse of political emails and potentially illegal fundraising. Now, as more than a dozen Republican candidates have either entered the 2016 GOP presidential field or are waiting in the wings, Walker is prepping his own moves carefully.
Like Perry, he’s launching himself with an anti-abortion bill.
Despite being a state with a firm anti-abortion majority in both the House and Senate, and a former pro-life activist as a governor, Wisconsin has been noticeably lagging when it came to introducing and passing a 20-week “pain ban.” The National Right to Life Committee urged all of its state affiliates to make the bill a priority since the 2012 elections, hoping that the legislation will eventually get challenged in the right circuit to begin its path up to the Supreme Court. But while at least 10 states have 20-week bans forbidding abortion after that point in gestation, Wisconsin never introduced a similar bill. At least, not until now.
Wisconsin’s 20-week ban debate will start this week, and has been fast-tracked through the legislature to get it to Walker as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the governor already announced he intends to sign it into law. As local pundits note, the entire maneuver reeks of a governor prepping for an upcoming presidential campaign.
“During the Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio on Wednesday morning, guest host John Munson asked Cap Times reporter Jessie Opoien, ‘How connected to the governor’s presidential aspirations do you think this is?’” reports The Capital Times. “Opoien responded: ‘We heard him indicate that support and that was before the bill was introduced. He had just the day before done an interview talking about abortion. A handful of pro-life conservatives chastised him… said he sounded weak on the issue, he wasn’t taking a hard-line stance. … The following day he wrote a letter saying ‘when this gets on my desk I’m gonna sign it.’”
For Walker to have a viable candidacy, it is imperative that he make a public and aggressive move on abortion, and despite his obvious anti-abortion background, that’s an effort that has been a bit of a struggle for the Wisconsin Republican. Although he has been outwardly supportive of local restrictions, championing the state when it in essence banned medication abortion in 2012, or later passed its own mandatory ultrasound bill, in both cases he chose not to make his official signings a media event, obscuring them around various holidays.
That’s a far cry from politicians like Kansas governor Sam Brownback, a man so thrilled to sign the state’s ban on the D&E procedure for second trimester abortions that he didn’t just do it once. Instead, he staged “re-enactment” signings across the state so everyone could come participate.
Walker has said that he won’t make an official presidential announcement until he signs this year’s budget, a process he is expected to complete at some point in June. That means that the passage and probable signing of the 20-week ban would be one of the last acts he accomplishes before he makes his run official, and that is a clear message to the social conservatives of the party. Still, if Perry’s disastrous run in 2012 has created any lessons, it’s that a fast-tracked anti-abortion bill may get a candidate cheers heading out of the gate, but keeping those supporters happy is a much tougher job.
Like Perry, Walker will enter the field carrying the ridiculously high hopes of a party that sees no real strong frontrunner for the nomination. But just like Perry did, he will be joining a group of candidates that show little distinction when it comes to policies on restricting abortion and contraceptive services. All of the entrees in the GOP party are making sure to obtain the good graces and support of the Susan B. Anthony List, promising to champion the anti-abortion group’s favorite bills. In fact, with the SBA List demanding that the 20-week ban be a “centerpoint” of any 2016 presidential campaign, Walker’s move to have the legislature fast-track a bill before session ends may not just be about ensuring a strong start to his own campaign, but also actually be the final legislative box he needs to check off before he is even allowed to enter.
Ironically, now that Walker has decided to aggressively embrace his anti-abortion policies and is actively identify with the pro-life movement, the actual term “pro-life” is reaching its lowest point of popularity in recent history. While Walker is arranging to sign a key abortion ban just in time to launch his 2016 bid, Americans have told Gallup pollsters they are no longer interested in restricting abortion, and they are no longer embracing those who call themselves “pro-life.”
Former Texas governor Rick Perry offers presidential candidates the blueprint for rising quickly, dashing hopes, and fading out fast when it comes to a presidential campaign. Now, Walker is starting off his own 2016 bid by following in Perry’s footprints. It won’t take long to see if he has any more luck on the trail than his predecessor.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Cosmopolitan.com, Rolling Stone, Politico, Ms. Magazine and other publications.