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Iowa’s Bucolic Backdrops Belie An Economy That Thrives On Finance

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

CHICAGO — In the final push before Monday’s caucuses, images of candidates pervade Iowa’s airwaves, with ad-makers placing them in settings they believe resonate: Hillary Clinton talking with a white-coated pharmacist. Marco Rubio tossing a football. Ted Cruz wearing duck-hunting gear.

None appears in an insurance office.

Iowa’s financial-services industry doesn’t wield caucus campaign clout commensurate with its economic might. The finance, insurance and real estate industries claim 21.5 percent of Iowa’s gross domestic product, compared with only 7.4 percent for agriculture and natural resources, according to a 2015 study by Iowa State University.

“We’re all well-aware of the stereotype,” said Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. “Ag is important, but insurance is huge, and mortgage and finance is a big deal here.”

The state has about 43,000 insurance-industry professionals, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. There were 211,373 farm operators and farm employees in 2012, a U.S. Department of Agriculture census showed.

That explains why in the past year, candidates from both parties have paid homage to agribusiness, with Republicans even attending an agricultural summit at the fairgrounds. There’s never been an insurance or mortgage summit. Candidates aren’t forced to formulate positions on insurance regulation as they are on ethanol, the corn-based fuel additive that boosts the bottom line of farmers.

Still, the candidates are well-aware of the key financial demographic. They show up every four years in corporate cafeterias and auditoriums to make their case.

The industry’s workers are a potent bloc, said Paula Dierenfeld, executive director for the Federation of Iowa Insurers.

“They don’t make a lot of noise, like a lot of other groups, in terms of how they approach their politics,” she said. “But they are a huge industry and employ thousands of people, who tend to be highly educated. Their political involvement will vary from one employee to the other, but you have to believe that a lot of them will be going to the caucuses.”

Dan Houston, chief executive officer of Principal Financial Group Inc., plans to attend the caucuses, likely as a Republican.

Houston, whose insurance and investment company has about $516 billion under management, spent childhood summers working on his grandfather’s farm. Since August, he’s led a global company that’s the largest employer headquartered in Des Moines, the state’s biggest city and one that he calls the “insurance capital of the Midwest.”

From an upper floor of a 44-story building in downtown Des Moines that is Iowa’s tallest structure, Houston can see both grain silos and more than half a dozen other major corporate offices. While his state is 87.8 percent non-Hispanic white, compared with 62.1 percent for the nation, he argues its economy mirrors the nation’s.

“The candidates get a really good cross-section of manufacturing, agriculture and finance,” he said. “They get these Happy Meal portions of the various sectors that exist and are replicated around the rest of the country.”

The Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States, which measures tax collections, home prices, mortgage delinquency, job growth, personal income and performance of local company shares, shows Iowa ranked 12th nationally during the first three quarters of 2015 for economic health. Iowa’s unemployment rate was 3.4 percent in December, sixth-lowest in the nation.

The insurance industry has seen a net increase of 4,200 jobs during the last 15 years, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. One reason for the growth has been the industry’s success in lobbying state legislators. In recent years, Iowa has lowered its insurance-premium tax by half, to 1 percent, one of the nation’s lowest rates.

Principal alone employs more than 6,400 people in Des Moines, with about 1,000 elsewhere in the state. Other financial-services companies with large employment bases in the Des Moines area include Wells Fargo & Co., Nationwide and EMC Insurance Companies. The area’s finance and insurance sector generates $3 billion in annual payroll, according to the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the area’s chamber of commerce.

Years ago, it was hard to persuade talent on the coasts to move to Des Moines. Houston said recruitment now isn’t much of a challenge given the area’s relatively low cost of living, an increasingly vibrant downtown with housing for young professionals and more robust air service.

Still, Iowa’s overall population growth hasn’t kept up with other states, putting pressure on companies to find workers. That’s particularly true in the manufacturing sector, which at 18.3 percent ranks second in the state’s gross domestic product.

The population grew just 2.4 percent between 2010 and 2015, compared with a national average of 3.9 percent, U.S. Census Bureau data show.

“We just need more people,” said Ralston, of the state’s business and industry association.

Those people, if trends continue, are unlikely to be farmers.

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the Sheraton Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

 

Profits And Profiteering Part Of Caucus Capitalism In Iowa

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

CHICAGO — For some Midwesterners, the presidential campaign brings the kind of New York values they can appreciate.

Later this month, Manhattan hotel prices will arrive in downtown Des Moines, part of the financial windfall Iowa enjoys every four years as host of the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

During the final week before the Feb. 1 caucuses, when thousands of reporters, campaign staff, volunteers, and others will flood the state’s capital city, rooms that would normally rent for $200 or less have, in some cases, fetched $600 or more.

“Every four years, this is the Super Bowl for Des Moines,” said Andrew Hollen, director of operations at the downtown Marriott, a top hotel for both media and candidates that’s sold out the week before the caucuses.

The spending influx extends beyond hotel rooms and includes television ads, event production, office space, rental cars, restaurants, and more.

New Hampshire, which hosts the nation’s first primary eight days after Iowa’s caucuses, also gets an economic boost from presidential campaigns. That financial windfall is one of the reasons both states fight vigorously every four years to maintain their early slots on the political calendar.

Years like this one, when there’s no incumbent president running for re-election and Democratic and Republican parties have competitive contests, are especially good for business. That hasn’t happened since 2008.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership — essentially the area’s chamber of commerce — estimates that year’s caucuses brought 2,500 members of the media and $25 million in visitor spending to the state’s biggest metropolitan area.

In 2012, when the caucuses were only competitive on the Republican side because incumbent President Barack Obama didn’t face a serious challenge, the partnership estimates the final week before the caucuses brought in 1,500 media representatives and $17 million in visitor spending, just to the Des Moines area.

In smaller ways, the economic reach of the caucuses touches almost every corner of the state. Many of this year’s Republican candidates are making it a point to visit all 99 of the state’s counties, meaning their campaigns will spend at least something virtually everywhere.

Tina Hoffman, the marketing and communications director for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said she’s never seen a comprehensive statewide study that spells out the caucus campaign’s full economic impact.

“There is no doubt that it has a huge economic impact for our state, in terms of hotel rooms, restaurants and television advertising,” she said. “It puts an international spotlight on our state and it gives us an opportunity to talk about issues important to Iowa.”

Using Federal Election Commission data in 2008 to track expenses directly paid to Iowa recipients, an Iowa State University economist found that the major presidential campaigns had a direct economic impact of $15.5 million in the six months that preceded the January 2008 caucuses.

That was about one-hundredth of 1 percent of the state’s $130 billion gross domestic product in 2007, the report found. Still, for individual businesses the windfall can be significant.

At the 801 Chophouse — arguably the top expense-account eatery in Des Moines — presidential election years are almost always tops for sales, said Damon Murphy, the restaurant’s general manager. “It’s typically our best,” he said. “The last week is always super crazy.”

With fewer reporters traveling because media organizations are more closely watching expenses, Murphy says there’s been less business than typical in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. “It’s a nice extra bonus,” he said. “But it’s not as big as it was eight years ago.”

Some of the biggest spending in the state lands in the coffers of the state’s television stations, mostly owned by conglomerates based outside Iowa. During 2015, more than $23 million in presidential campaign advertising ran on broadcast television in Iowa markets and those adjacent to the state, according to estimates from Kantar Media’s CMAG.

Federal Election Commission records are filled with spending — small and large — by the presidential campaigns in Iowa.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid an Iowa-based company, Elite Productions Services LLC, more than $234,000 during the second quarter of 2015 to produce staging, seating, and sound for her events.

Billionaire Donald Trump, the national Republican front- runner, paid $8,114 in June to rent Hoyt Sherman Place, a theater on the edge of downtown Des Moines, for his first appearance in the state as a declared presidential candidate.

The campaign for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spent $200 for food and beverage at Alba, a trendy restaurant west of the state capitol in Des Moines.

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: David Wilson via Flickr

Iowa Dominated By Indecision As Presidential Caucuses Near

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

CHICAGO — The crops have been harvested and snow has already fallen multiple times, signs in Iowa that it will soon be time to start the process of picking a new president — and begin winnowing the crowded Republican field.

Yet even after months of candidate visits and millions of dollars in campaign ads, many Iowa Republicans interviewed this week don’t seem anywhere close to making their final decision, even though the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are less than two months away.

Conversations with more than a dozen likely voters at multiple events featuring former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also revealed that many don’t expect to make their minds up for at least another month and that the economy still matters, even as foreign policy has become a bigger part of the discussion following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

The voters’ uncertainty suggests the race remains highly fluid, with the outcome not as locked down as polling numbers might suggest. That’s not unusual this far ahead of the caucuses. “Organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end,” is a favorite expression of the state’s political strategists.

In a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus participants released on Nov. 24, real estate mogul Donald Trump led with 25 percent, followed by Cruz at 23 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 18 percent and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 13 percent. Bush was at 4 percent, one point behind Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, with all others scoring even lower.

“There are a very high number of would-be caucus-goers who have yet to make up their mind,” said David Oman, a Bush strategist in Iowa who served as state co-chairman for Mitt Romney’s 2011-2012 campaign. “I’m hoping people will take a second look, or perhaps a first look, at Jeb.”

After seeing 11 of the Republican presidential candidates in person, Jerry Small said he remains undecided.

“I wish I could make a hybrid and come up with a candidate that has all the good parts of each of them,” said Small, at a Bush event in Waterloo on Tuesday afternoon. A retired department store sales manager, he’s leaning toward Bush, Cruz or Rubio.

Most of those interviewed said they’ve narrowed their choices to three (or so) candidates. Many said they don’t like to commit too soon.

“This is the time to do a lot of listening,” said Wendy Weig, a musician who attended a county Republican Party event where former Bush spoke Monday evening in Goose Lake, Iowa. “I don’t like to lock in on anyone just yet because a lot of dirty stuff comes out at the end.”

While voters aren’t expressing any sense of urgency, the candidates and their campaigns are feeling the press of time. A mid-December debate in Las Vegas will freeze the race for a couple days. That will be followed by a pause for the holidays in late December and a January sprint to the caucuses, held in schools, fire stations and community centers across the state on the evening of Feb. 1.

The increased political intensity comes as Iowans should generally feel pretty good about their economic condition: Gas prices are below two dollars a gallon. The state’s unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, sixth-lowest in the nation. And farmers gathered what appears to be record corn and soybean crops, even if lower commodity prices are keeping them from a windfall.

Those metrics, however, aren’t lifting the moods of many of those interviewed.

“Here in Newton, it’s really impossible to get a job that pays more than $14 an hour,” said Jerald Nelson, who works in a civilian role for the Iowa National Guard after retiring from the active military. “There’s no horsepower in the economy. It feels like it’s either flat or going backwards.”

Nelson was one of about 125 people who turned out one rainy evening this week to a shop classroom at a community college to listen to Bush make his pitch and then answer questions for more than 40 minutes.

After backing then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the 2012 caucuses, Nelson said he’s narrowed down his finalists to Bush, Rubio and Carson. “I’d prefer a governor and Bush has a good record,” he said. “My concern is the media will just keep beating him down because he’s a Bush.”

He isn’t likely to make his decision anytime soon, and electability is a key consideration. “The way it’s going now, it will probably be the week before,” Nelson said. “I like a lot of them, but it’s about getting the most bang for the buck because we can’t afford to lose to a Democrat.”

On the day Nelson saw him, Bush appeared at the same community college where Trump spoke less than two weeks earlier, drawing a crowd nearly three times as big. In a local reference Bush failed to make, Trump repeatedly mentioned the devastating 2007 closure of a Maytag Corp. factory that had served as a community anchor for high-paying jobs in a town that was once known as the washing machine capital of the world.

Bush offered policy positions far more nuanced and detailed than those from Trump. The session felt like a classroom discussion in sharp contrast to Trump’s political revival meeting.

Even among crowds that turned out to see Bush this week — in Goose Lake and larger cities like Newton and Waterloo — it was hard to find anyone who said they were absolutely decided on supporting him.

That was also the case at events for Cruz, who polls show is gaining momentum in the state. The senator from Texas drew about 300 people in the eastern Iowa town of Bettendorf to attend an event on a cold, rainy Monday evening. Cars were parked on the grass and a neighboring street because the parking lot outside the reception hall was filled.

John Schaff, a semi-retired farmer from Camanche, Iowa, is another one of the many undecideds. Before hearing Cruz speak in the Mississippi River town of Clinton, he said he’s also considering Carson. Asked when he would decide, Schaff said “the day before.”

Carole Doanne, a retired insurance agency worker from Newton, saw both Cruz and Bush in the span of a couple days this past week. She said she considers Cruz too “slick” to get her support. “I wasn’t sold on him,” she said. “I don’t like his personality.”

With the end of the caucus campaign drawing near, the candidates have begun to more formally ask for votes at the end of their appearances. The contrast between Cruz and Bush was stark.

Bush typically makes his request with just a few quick words, while Cruz drags his out for several minutes. He asks those in his audiences to not just turn out for him on Feb. 1, but also volunteer, call friends and family, and pray.

“It’s going to be easier to stay at home by the fireplace,” Cruz said in Clinton, Iowa. “But I ask you to come and stand and caucus with us.”

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at his campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia, December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Scott Walker Keeps Lead As Jeb Bush Struggles In Latest Iowa Polling

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues to lead prospective and declared 2016 Republican candidates in Iowa, while former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has lost ground, a Quinnipiac University poll shows.

The survey shows a four-way scramble for second place between Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. All four have formally declared their candidacies, with Huckabee, who is campaigning in Iowa the next two days, doing so on Tuesday.

Walker attracted support from 21 percent of likely Republican caucus participants, down from 25 percent in a Quinnipiac survey taken about two months ago. He’s followed by Paul and Rubio at 13 percent, Cruz at 12 percent, and Huckabee at 11 percent.

Retired surgeon Ben Carson, who also declared his candidacy this week, attracted support from seven percent of those polled, and Bush drew just five percent. No one else was above three percent in the state that starts the nomination voting in about nine months.

Bush’s standing in the poll dropped five points from the ten percent he recorded in February while Rubio’s has risen nine points and Cruz’s has moved up seven points.

There’s more negative news in the poll for Bush: A quarter of likely Iowa voters list him when asked if there’s a candidate they would definitely not support. That’s followed by one-in-five who say that of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and one-in-ten who say that of Paul.

The poll has positive signs for Bush’s fellow Floridian, Rubio, who clearly has room to grow in Iowa. By 69 percent to nine percent, likely caucus participants view him favorably vs. unfavorably, the best in the Republican field. His policy views are “about right,” according to 65 percent of poll participants, also the highest scored by a candidate or prospective candidate.

Walker gets a 59 percent favorability rating, with 62 percent saying his positions are “about right” on issues. Nearly seven-in-ten say he’s honest and trustworthy while he scores 72 percent for both strong leadership qualities and for being viewed as someone who cares about their needs and problems.

“Walker scores very highly on a variety of matrixes — honesty, leadership, caring about the needs of average folks, and his favorability among caucus-goers,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the poll, said in a statement.

For Bush, 39 percent view him favorably while 45 percent view him unfavorably. Only 36 percent say he’s about right on the issues while 45 percent say he’s not conservative enough.

Walker is doing best among men, a group where he’s supported by 24 percent while the polling is closer among women. Walker, Rubio, and Cruz are all within a couple points among female Republicans likely to attend the caucuses.

The survey of 667 likely Iowa Republican caucus participants was taken April 25 to May fourth. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points on the full sample.

Photo: Jeb Bush via Wikipedia

The Conservative Group Behind Scott Walker’s Political Rise

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

When Wisconsin Democrats failed recently to block anti-union legislation supported by Gov. Scott Walker, one name kept coming up: the Bradley Foundation.

The Republican governor’s opponents wanted to know whether the Milwaukee group helped draft the bill or coached those who testified for it. Their suspicions were rooted in the fact that Michael Grebe, one of Walker’s closest advisers, leads the powerful yet mostly inconspicuous voice for American conservatism. Diane Hendricks, a billionaire roofing-supply executive who is Walker’s top individual donor, is on its board.

Bradley and Grebe were central to Walker’s rise to national prominence four years ago, when he rolled back the power of government unions. They’ll probably be equally key to his almost-certain presidential bid.
“Without the Bradley Foundation, there is no Scott Walker,” said Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, whose district includes its headquarters.

With almost $1 billion in assets, the group has financed research and policy experiments concerning public vouchers for private schools, voter-identification requirements and collective-bargaining restrictions — all issues Walker has championed. Bradley had ties to many who testified for the “Freedom to Work” law, which lets employees in union workplaces opt out of membership.

While the group has a lower profile than those of David and Charles Koch, the billionaires who’ve raised hundreds of millions for Republicans, including Walker, its aims are similar.

“They are kindred spirits,” Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the Washington-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said of the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers.

One key distinction: The nonprofit foundation can’t directly engage in politics, while the Kochs can spend their wealth on campaigns however they like and enlist other donors. Bradley spends roughly double the national average of 12 percent of foundation dollars on policy and public affairs, Dorfman said.

“The Bradley Foundation has been one of the leading funders of the conservative movement,” he said. “They’ve supported think tanks and other organizations that have been very effective at moving a conservative policy agenda.”

For all of Bradley’s political involvement, most of its giving is directed toward charities, artistic, and cultural institutions, and schools. It’s especially generous to entities in Milwaukee, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, theaters, Boy Scout troops and Little League teams.

To Larson, all that charitable work isn’t enough to mitigate actions he says harm his community. “If they weren’t here, I think our community would be a lot better off,” he said.

Walker, 47, isn’t the only likely Republican presidential candidate with ties to the outfit. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush won a $250,000 Bradley Prize in 2011, recognition that he said at the time left him “incredibly humbled.” Bush was picked because of his creation of a charter school and testing program and for efforts to “cut taxes every year of his tenure in office,” the foundation’s website says.

Still, Walker, who, along with Bush, leads in early polling about possible Republican candidates, has stronger ties to the foundation.

In 2009, Walker picked Grebe as campaign chairman. Less than a week after winning the governor’s office in November 2010, Walker dined at a Milwaukee restaurant with the foundation’s board and senior staff, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Grebe went on to lead Walker’s campaigns against a recall in 2012 and for re-election in 2014.

Before joining the foundation in 2002, Grebe was chairman and chief executive officer of one of the nation’s largest law firms, Foley & Lardner, and is a past president of the University of Wisconsin board of regents. He’s also a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee and RNC member for Wisconsin from 1984 to 2002.

The foundation paid him more than $518,000 in 2013, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service disclosure.

Grebe declined an interview request for himself and the foundation. Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Walker’s political committee, Our American Revival, declined to comment on Walker’s connections with Bradley.

Grebe has also promoted two other Wisconsin power players: RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who represents a southern Wisconsin district in Congress.

“Michael Grebe is one of the godfathers of modern Republican politics in Wisconsin,” said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin consultant who has worked as a Republican campaign manager. “Mike is someone that everyone who runs for higher office consults with and gets advice from.”

Graul downplayed the foundation’s influence in Walker’s rise in Wisconsin and the importance of Bradley-backed groups promoting his policy initiatives. Those “are uniquely and solely owned by Scott Walker,” he said.

The roles played by various groups funded by the Bradley Foundation before, during and after the 2011 fight over Walker’s signature issue suggest otherwise.

Before Walker’s December 2010 announcement that he’d seek to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for state and local government workers, the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy in Madison called for the change. The think tank, which says it promotes “individual freedom, personal responsibility and limited government,” received $85,000 from the foundation in 2011, records show.

Another Bradley-backed group, the Center for Union Facts, runs a website called Teachers Union Exposed. During the 2011 fight, it featured criticisms of the Wisconsin education establishment, the Journal Sentinel reported. That year, Bradley gave the center $300,000.

In 2011 and during the 2012 recall campaign, Americans for Prosperity Foundation spent millions on advertising and other activity on Walker’s behalf. The organization, whose chairman is David Koch, received $40,000 in 2011 and 2012 from Bradley.

And when the law was challenged in court, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs in its support. The Milwaukee-based group received $375,000 from the foundation during 2012.

Whatever influence Bradley has had on Walker, they share one thing in common: increasing asset value. While the Wisconsin governor’s political stock has risen among Republicans since his 2011 faceoff with unions, the foundation’s holdings soared almost 60 percent to $922 million.

(c)2015 Bloomberg News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Walker Says Union Law Popular With Republicans Wasn’t His Idea

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said legislation that will weaken labor unions and burnish his image as a Republican presidential candidate wasn’t his brainchild.

At a bill-signing Monday, Walker said the push for the right-to-work bill, passed last week by the legislature, came from lawmakers themselves.

“Our leaders here led,” Walker, 47, said during a ceremony in Brown Deer, Wis. “It was the leadership you see here who drove the train on this.”

The measure allows employees in union workplaces to opt out of dues and membership. Wisconsin becomes the 25th U.S. state to enact such a law, joining neighbors Iowa, Indiana and Michigan.

Before Walker’s November re-election, he’d said that he didn’t expect right-to-work to be taken up this legislative session, even calling it a “distraction.” After the Republican-controlled legislature began moving the bill, saying it would draw business, Walker said he’d sign it.

The signing was held at Badger Meter Inc., a suburban Milwaukee manufacturer of flow measurement and control technology. Chief Executive Officer Rich Meeusen last week threatened to move jobs from the state if the legislation didn’t pass.

“This is one more tool that will help grow good-paying, family-supporting jobs here in the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said. “It’s a huge incentive.”

In 2011, Walker made a national name for himself — becoming a villain to unions and a hero to Republicans — by pushing through a law that removed collective-bargaining rights for most of Wisconsin’s public employees.

That triggered protests by as many as 100,000, including some who occupied the Capitol in Madison during a weekslong standoff. The protest generated by the right-to-work measure was tame by comparison, never drawing more than a few thousand.

“In August 2014, Gallup found 74 percent of Republicans nationwide supported right to work, so this is a popular position within the party and among primary voters,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

Walker’s history with labor has made him a target of protest along the early presidential campaign trail. Dozens of pro-union activists demonstrated Saturday evening outside a hotel where he spoke in Dubuque, Iowa.

“As Scott Walker campaigns for president, his signature today making Wisconsin the 25th right to work state only cements his legacy of lowered standards, extreme division, and diminished opportunity,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement.

Democrats said the bill was rushed through and meant to distract from Walker’s budgetary challenges.

Without changes, Wisconsin faces a deficit that may reach $2.2 billion in a two-year period starting in July, according to his administration’s analysts. Tax cuts promoted by Walker, along with Medicaid spending, contributed to the gap.

Walker’s aides have said he’s unlikely to formally announce a presidential bid until after Wisconsin lawmakers finish the budget, probably in June.

Photo: Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Walker Has Chance To Learn From Christie’s Blunders In Britain

By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

CHICAGO — Visiting London this week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has the advantage of arriving just after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s departure.

For both men, the stated mission of a visit to the European financial hub is to boost trade in their home states. The unstated goal: bolster their credentials ahead of possible 2016 Republican presidential bids.

Christie might have been better off if he’d stayed home. Coverage of his three-day trip turned negative after he said parents should have choice in immunizing their children. He also offered no clear foreign-policy message and engaged in testy exchanges with reporters.

Walker’s journey comes as he has shown polling momentum in states that host the earliest nomination contests. He stands to benefit by contrast to Christie if he can avoid similar pitfalls.

“When you are on foreign soil, every move is fraught with peril,” said Katie Packer Gage, deputy campaign manager for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The two governors are just the latest potential 2016 Republicans to make a U.K. visit. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal came in January. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida were all there last year.

Though such visits are often largely about photo opportunities, U.S. voters and foreign leaders also use them to take the measure of politicians, said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who studies foreign policy.

“If you can’t pass that test, then the American public won’t consider you a viable candidate,” he said. “They need to demonstrate that they can be sure-footed abroad when the attention is on them.”

Walker’s four-day trip may include just one public event, a speech Wednesday to the Chatham House think tank in London, which focuses on international affairs. The hour-long appearance is entitled “Building Global Partnerships for Stronger Local Economies.”

The second-term governor is also scheduled to visit business leaders and government officials, tour factories and host an alumni networking breakfast Wednesday for University of Wisconsin and Marquette University graduates.

“There are many reasons why companies in the U.K. should consider establishing or expanding their operations in Wisconsin, and we are going to make that case directly to the key decision-makers,” Walker, 47, said in a statement.

At $679 million in 2013, the U.K. is Wisconsin’s sixth-largest export market, behind Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and Germany, according to data from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Walker’s only previous trade mission was to China in 2013, according to an e-mail from Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman. He’s also looking to book a trip to Israel this year, another common stop for presidential candidates.

In a Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm New Hampshire poll released during the weekend, Walker drew 12 percent of likely primary voters, behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. The poll, taken Jan. 31-Feb. 5 by Washington-based Purple Insights and with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, surveyed 400 Republican primary voters almost exactly a year before the 2016 New Hampshire primary.

Christie’s stumbles last week went beyond his lack of foreign-policy experience. He got caught up in an emotional debate surrounding a measles outbreak in the U.S. He told reporters that parents should have “some measure of choice” in vaccination. When that remark was condemned back home, his staff released a statement saying that Christie believes “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.”

The New Jersey governor’s trip didn’t sink to the level of Romney’s during the last campaign. Romney offended the British by raising doubts about whether London was prepared to host the Olympics, which began the week he arrived. That prompted London’s mayor to mock Romney at a rally in front of tens of thousands of people.

Gage, who spent months helping plan that trip, said U.S. politicians need savvy locals to help them prepare for unwanted surprises.

“You almost have to anticipate the worst kinds of headlines you could get,” she said.

Mike Tate, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, mocked Walker’s travels as he alluded to Christie’s.

“This trip might be a taxpayer-funded campaign to bolster his credibility on foreign policy, but the governor is still accountable for the mess he’s created in Wisconsin,” Tate said in a statement. “Unfortunately for Walker, overseas travel hasn’t been too kind to scandal-plagued Republican governors running for president.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons