One Galvanizing Issue Can Rocket Launch a Potential Presidential Candidacy: Scott Walker Is One Example

03/19/2015 02:05 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

On election night 2010, Scott Walker's victory in the Wisconsin Gubernatorial sweepstakes flew under the national radar. More national focus was thrust upon Texas Governor Rick Perry's successful re-election bid, and the election of Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate in Florida. Yet today, Walker sits in the first tier of 2016 Republican Presidential aspirants, and is actually ahead in some polls. He is garnering a cavalcade of national media attention. The other two potential GOP Presidential candidates have been relegated to the second tier of possible Presidential candidates. How did this happen? In his first year as Governor, Walker struck a resonate chord with one issue, his proposal to limit the rights of public sector unions to collectively bargain.

When Walker's indignant opponent's succeeded in securing the requisite signatures to recall the Governor that year, money flooded into Wisconsin from conservatives from all over the country. Walker became the national tribune for those Americans who believe public-sector unions wield an inordinate amount of power in state capitals. Walker won the recall election and became a household name on the political right. Consequently, Walker was catapulted from political obscurity to a top tier Presidential candidate because of this single issue.

American Presidential politics includes other examples where one issue (or galvanizing event) has launched a national political career. For example, in 1918, Republican Calvin Coolidge was elected Governor of Massachusetts by just 16,733 votes, defeating Democrat Richard H. Long. Coolidge won largely because of his association as Lieutenant Governor with the popular outgoing Republican Governor Samuel W. McCall. The next year, the unassuming, low key Coolidge became a hero in conservative quarters. The Boston Police went on strike after the city's police commissioner, Edwin U. Curtis, denied them the right to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL). With the city in a near state of anarchy, Coolidge ordered the Massachusetts National Guard to supplant the Boston police officers during the strike. The Guard succeeded in reestablishing order in the city. Coolidge became a political folk hero to conservatives when his response to a letter written to him by AFL President Samuel Gompers was disseminated. Coolidge wrote to Gompers: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time."

Similar to the recall election with Walker, Coolidge's 1919 re-election campaign became a referendum on Coolidge's leadership during that strike (At the time, Massachusetts Governors were elected to one-year terms). Unions worked feverishly for Richard H. Long, who once again ran against Coolidge. The race became a cause célèbre for the unions because of Coolidge's handling of the police strike. The Boston Central Labor Union called for voters to oppose Coolidge so as to: "remove this menace to public safety and vindicate our cause." Bay State voters, however, were not singing from the same hymnbook as the unions. Coolidge was soundly re-elected as Governor.

Coolidge's handling of the police strike and his subsequent statement against the strikers, coupled with his resounding re-election as Governor against a union backed candidate, precipitously elevated Coolidge to national stardom with the Republican Party's conservative bloodline. At the 1920 Republican National Convention, some conservatives wanted to place Coolidge's name as a candidate for the Presidential nomination. Coolidge refused the overtures.

The nomination instead went to the conservative U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding (R-OH). The GOP establishment wanted to balance the ticket with U.S. Representative Irvine Lenroot, who was the tribune of the party's liberal bloodline. However, after Lenroot's name was placed into nomination, conservatives rebelled against the establishment and chanted Coolidge's name. Delegate Wallace McCamant soon placed Coolidge's name in nomination. Coolidge handily defeated Lenroot. The Harding-Coolidge ticket won the race, and Coolidge assumed the Presidency in 1923 after Harding died from a respiratory illness.

In 1938, Wendell Willkie, a wealthy utilities executive and a Democrat, became disenchanted with the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and their effects on the utilities industry. He agreed to debate Assistant U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson on the issue of Free Enterprise on national radio. Willkie wooed conservatives with his stronger than expected performance. With that one appearance, an attendant draft movement began among Republican activists for Willkie to run for the GOP Presidential nomination in 1940. The movement picked up steam, and Willkie pocketed the GOP nomination on the sixth ballot at the Republican National Convention. However, he lost the General election to Roosevelt.

Two Democratic Presidential candidates also used a single issue (in their roles as Committee Chairmen) as a springboard for a Presidential candidacy. In 1950, while television was in its infancy, U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN) was Chairman of a Special U.S. Senate Committee that held hearings on organized crime. While many Americans did not own a television, some stores placed a television in their window so that Americans could watch these high-profile hearings. Many Americans became entranced watching as mobsters and politicians testified before the Committee. The hearings made Kefauver a household name. Kefauver ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1952 and defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman in the New Hampshire Primary. Truman subsequently bowed out of the race. Kefauver went on to win 12 of the 15 primaries. However, at that time, primary voters had little power, and the high command preferred Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson who was able to muster the nomination on the third ballot.

Similarly, in 1975, U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-ID), also the chairman of a Special U.S. Senate Committee, launched hearings into abuses by U.S. In. The hearings were launched after revelations by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times that U.S. intelligence agencies had been engaged in covert actions to assassinate foreign leaders, had engaged in illegal wiretapping of Americans, and had opened citizens' mail. Church excoriated the intelligence agency's illicit activities, and branded some agents "rogue elephants." This led to President Gerald R. Ford signing Executive Order 11905, which promulgated: "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination."

The hearings made Church an exemplar of truth to some on the left and led to a Church candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1976. In his announcement speech in Idaho City, ID, Church sagaciously used the national fame he had accrued from the hearings. He bellowed: "It is a leadership of weakness and fear which permits the most powerful agencies of our government - the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS - to systematically ignore the very law intended to protect the liberties of the people."

While there was a brief bump of momentum for Church (winning Democratic primaries in Idaho, Montana and Nebraska), his entrance into the race in March of 1976 was too late to stop the eventual nominee, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. However, the hearings did propel Church to be considered as a potential Vice Presidential nominee. However, Carter skipped over Church for U.S. Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN.)

Scott Walker is one of a very small number of Presidential candidates to have been catapulted into the national spotlight by a single galvanizing issue or event. Walker's challenge to public sector unions struck a nerve with rank-and-file Republicans, as well as with Libertarian-oriented Tea Party voters and GOP benefactors.