Walker pitched his message to conservatives nationwide — and it paid off
By Kate Golden and Amy Karon
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
On Nov. 10, 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave the keynote address at the annual dinner of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix with ties to the powerful, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.
“Tonight, you might say I’m preaching to the choir with a bunch of fellow conservatives,” Walker, the son of a minister, told more than 1,000 supporters that night. “I preach to the choir because I want the choir to sing. So tonight I’m asking you to sing.”
His message: Spread the word “in Arizona and all across America that we can do things better.”
The high-profile event was no anomaly. Two days later, Walker addressed students at a conference at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was billed as one of America’s “top conservative leaders.”
Walker’s official calendars from his first 13 months in office chronicle these and scores more hours he spent building credentials with conservatives in Wisconsin and across the nation.
The governor granted more interview time to the national, conservative-leaning Fox News cable channel than any other media outlet — nearly twice as much as to his hometown newspaper, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which had endorsed him in 2010.
Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the governor “has multiple media availabilities every week where he is available to answer questions from any legitimate news organization who chooses to attend, liberal or conservative.”
Last fall and winter, Walker halved his overall work schedule, but his PR time hardly changed even as he raised unprecedented millions in response to a recall campaign. Since taking office in January 2011, he has raised more than $25 million — more than half from other states.
Prime time for conservative hosts
Fox News isn’t the only conservative-leaning outlet Walker favors. Charlie Sykes, a radio host of Milwaukee’s WTMJ, was scheduled for more interview time with Walker than any other media professional in his first 13 months in office. Sykes donated $500 to Walker’s 2010 campaign, records show.
However, Mike Gousha, a television news anchor of Milwaukee’s WISN whose work long has been respected by conservatives and liberals alike, was scheduled for nearly as much time as was Sykes.
Conservative-leaning Vicki McKenna, a radio host on Madison’s WIBA, accrued the third-most time with Walker.
Overall, five of the seven radio and TV talk show hosts with whom Walker spent the most media time are conservatives. (The seventh, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, has said her stance “depends on the issue.”)
Sykes and McKenna didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Walker’s time with media was tallied using a database the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism created from Walker’s calendars.
Katherine Cramer Walsh, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Center’s findings matched her own assessment of Walker’s strategy: “To shore up his base, spend time with his supporters, and not necessarily build bridges, compromise or reach out to opponents.”
Although politically charged radio hosts such as Sykes and McKenna are popular, their programs are heard by a relatively small slice of the population, said Michael J. Flaherty, who runs a Madison public relations firm and is a former Capitol reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.
“Most folks don’t listen to these people, but the folks who do tend to be fairly loud voices in their local communities,” Flaherty added. “It may look like the governor is talking only to himself half the time. But he’s reinforcing a message that has been multiplied many, many times by these storytellers.”
Walker faces Democrat Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, in a nationally watched election on June 5.
Distant with liberal media
During Walker’s first 13 months in office, he appeared at numerous press conferences, scheduled nearly 200 hours with media and granted interviews to at least 115 outlets. But not all media outlets had easy access to the governor.
“Gov. Walker skips interviews, does NYC fundraiser,” read a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline in January 2012 after a reporter was denied an interview. Walker was fundraising at the time for his recall election alongside Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the founder of financial services giant American International Group.
Liberal-leaning media, such as Madison’s The Capital Times newspaper and The Progressive Magazine, attended Walker’s press conferences. But they weren’t scheduled for interviews, his calendars show. Capital Times Editor Paul Fanlund said in one instance this winter when the governor was scheduling year-end interviews with many news media outlets — a common practice — Walker seemed to single out his paper for rejection. Fanlund said Werwie told a reporter that “he personally didn’t like our editorial about his role in the John Doe investigation and he didn’t think Walker would gain anything by talking with us.”
Werwie responded by email that it was “completely absurd” to cover a single denial and supplied four rejections to a Fox News producer. “I turn down tons of requests for interviews,” Werwie said, adding that the governor has rejected media requests from “across the ideological spectrum.”
Dean Pagani, a former press secretary for Republican Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut who now covers gubernatorial issues at GovernorsJournal.com, said he wasn’t surprised Walker didn’t “waste time” talking to people he’s unlikely to persuade.
“When I was (a press officer), our job was to get as much press as possible, regardless of who was asking the question,” he said. But now, “the press secretaries are much more protective, and they want to know where you’re coming from before they let you talk to their governor.”
Governor on the go
In a single day last November, Walker flew to Wausau for a jobs announcement, hopped to La Crosse to sign two economic bills, gave a radio address and headed to his home near Milwaukee, where he gave a Fox & Friends interview the next morning.
His calendars highlight what political scientists call a key political strategy — a constant public-relations focus in a 24-hour news world.
“Scott Walker is a modern politician,” said Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He spends a lot of time in transit, doing public relations events, talking to people and trying to promote his agenda.
“As the population gets larger and people feel less connected to government officials, it’s a way to seem like you’re still in touch with the people who put you in office,” Skelley said.
Walker spent about 530 hours on PR work. His top priority appeared to be his jobs agenda, at about one-fifth of that time, according to the Center’s analysis. Time spent networking with his base and with other politicians came in second.
During his first year in office, Walker visited at least two-thirds of Wisconsin’s counties and 12 other states, plus Washington, D.C. But he bypassed much of the northern third of Wisconsin.
Spokesman Werwie said, “While some counties are harder than others to visit given his hectic schedule, (Walker) has made it a priority to regularly have events and grant media interviews in all areas of the state.”
Pagani said Walker has leveraged his national attention well. If he wins the recall election, he’ll be a conservative hero. If he loses, he’ll be a martyr who can “travel the country saying, ‘I fought the good fight.’”
Explore interactive graphics of the governor’s calendars at the Walker Calendar Files overview page.
Coming Sunday, May 20: Who got access to Walker?
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or its affiliates.