Scott Walker’s Big Gamble

With his new budget, the Wisconsin governor has angered his party’s right, spelling trouble for a man who appears eager to run for president in 2016.

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Douglas Graham / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, during the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center at National Harbor, Md., March 16, 2013

Scott Walker has come a long way from the days when he was forced to barricade himself in the Wisconsin governor’s office while demonstrators stormed the Capitol Rotunda in Madison to protest his bill slashing state spending and dismantling public employee unions.

Two years and one recall election later, Walker enacted his second budget with little fanfare late last month. Although no Democrats voted for the bill, its provisions largely steer clear of the aggressive spending cuts and right-wing flashpoints that characterized Walker’s 2011 emergency budget repair measures. Instead, the two-year, $68 billion budget actually increases spending and borrowing, while cutting income taxes by $651 million.

The budget is a political gamble for Walker, who has said he is open to a 2016 presidential bid and kicked up a cloud of coverage when he visited Iowa, home to the first vote in the national campaign, earlier this spring. The decision to cut taxes, while also increasing borrowing and spending, is likely to play well with Wisconsin voters. But the move threatens Walker’s reputation as a hard-line fiscal conservative by introducing structural imbalances back into the state’s books.

(MORE: Uncompromised: Why Scott Walker Survived His Recall)

In the years since his budget showdown in Madison, the 45-year-old governor has become a folk hero to the right. Walker’s willingness to take on labor unions and strong-arm Wisconsin’s fiscal house back into order earned him powerful and generous Republican backers, like billionaires Charles and David Koch, and a Fox News following.

In 2012, after a landslide victory in his June recall election, Walker became a top surrogate for Mitt Romney’s campaign, in part because of his ability to appeal to the party’s base where the former Massachusetts governor struggled. Although Walker currently trails behind other 2016 Republican presidential contenders — his name wasn’t even included in Public Policy Polling’s survey of Iowa voters last week —Republican insiders say Walker’s reputation for “getting things done” makes him a viable dark horse candidate for the GOP nomination in 2016.

But should Wisconsin’s new budget send the state back into fiscal limbo, Walker could risk losing the good will he has built up among his party’s right wing.

“I’m somewhat puzzled that this administration would spend so much political capital to bring the state back to even-keel economically, and then turn around and move back in the direction that we had gone for the previous 10 years, when the budget was barely balanced,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a conservative-leaning public policy think tank based in Madison.

Berry notes that while Walker’s budget was “difficult and controversial,” it produced a budget surplus of about $420 million. By contrast, the new budget draws down on that surplus, and relies on the state’s volatile economic recovery to keep Wisconsin in the black.

A spokesman for Walker did not return a request for comment. The governor has boasted that his budget increases investment in workforce training and infrastructure as well as adding to K-12 education spending to expand Wisconsin’s taxpayer-funded private schools.

(MORE: In Wisconsin’s Recall, a Tale of Two Parties)

But Walker’s shift away from a more austere spending plan has raised alarm among Tea Party conservatives and other fiscal hawks, who tend to be more concerned with government spending than tax cuts.

“It’s not a conservative budget at all — it increases the size of government, and spends 6.2 percent more than what was authorized in the last budget,” said Todd Welch, the Wisconsin field organizer for the right-leaning, libertarian group Campaign For Liberty.

“There’s been more and more disappointment with Governor Walker within the Tea Party,” Welch added. “Republicans are really fed up with people who say one thing when they campaign and another thing once they are in office.”

This conservative dissatisfaction could create problems for Walker, who lacks the name recognition of fellow Republicans like Rand Paul and Chris Christie, should he decide to pursue a presidential bid in 2016. Its a run that would benefit greatly from the favor of those activists most alarmed by his budget plan. Even in his home state, Walker ranked third behind fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio in a recent Marquette Law School poll of the Republican presidential field. In a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Walker came in last among a field of seven possible Republican candidates, with a 19 percent favorable rating among conservative voters.

Walker’s defenders dismiss claims that the governor has shifted away from his  principles and suggest that conservatives might be willing to look past any queasiness over his budget.

“I think he touched a lot of conservative bases that people are not giving him credit for,” said Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin-based political strategist and former adviser to Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. “School choice, tax cuts, rejecting Obamacare funding — all of those things are going to be very appealing to a national conservative audience.”

MORE: With Money and Momentum, Scott Walker Gains Ground in Wisconsin Recall Campaign