Kochs Zig, Walker Zags

The big source of excitement here at PA yesterday was conflicting reports that the Brothers Koch might well be intervening in the Republican presidential nominating process in a big way, perhaps on behalf of Scott Walker. Now the Bros and their spox seem to be backpeddling furiously. At one point yesterday there was talk of an “audition” of candidates to pick a fave. Now Charles Koch is suggesting that maybe they’ll provide money to multiple candidates, with at least five–Walker, Bush, Cruz, Paul and Rubio–already being sort of prequalified.

You get the impression the Bros are trying to put enough fog into the air about their plans that the original story just goes away. But another intepretation is that they realized the semi-endorsement of Scott Walker that David Koch appears to have made night before last was premature. If so, that may or may not have had something to do with a remarkably coincidental statement by Walker on immigration policy that seemed to have opened up a rather large gap between the Wisconsin governor and the Bros, long-time supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC has the story:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s newfound skepticism of legal immigration levels is a potential turning point in the still nascent presidential race, potentially dragging the Republican Party further to the right than Mitt Romney’s hardline immigration platform in 2012.

“In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying – the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages,” Walker said Monday in an interview with Glenn Beck. “It is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today – what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”

Up until now, Republicans expressing concern over levels of legal immigration (in the not-too-distant past a priority of some labor folk) were pretty much limited to Steve King, Sen. Jeff Sessions, and just one potential ’16er, Rick Santorum, who was making the same kind of “populist” economic argument against high levels of legal or illegal immigration that Walker seemed to be trying out with Beck.

Now it’s important to note that vague grousing about legal immigration could take someone like Walker in several different directions. It’s actually pretty standard for Republicans to favor a shift to an economic basis for legal immigration decisions rather than the current priority for family unification. But some immigration “populists” all over the ideological spectrum are also prone to attacking the kind of “guest worker” programs that the business community favors as a next best solution to a “path to citizenship,” and that presidential candidates like Jeb Bush support. And theoretically Walker could embrace Santorum’s position, which makes immigration restrictions a major “solution” to wage stagnation and income inequality.

It should be obvious that exactly where Walker goes on this issue could affect his relationship with the Kochs (and, in a different way, with Iowa poohbahs like King, who is planning to make an endorsement this cycle). At the same time, the Bros may well think Walker’s union busting and southern fried approach to economic development is important enough to cover a multitude of differences of opinion over immigration–or for that matter, criminal justice reform, a Koch priority on which, as Leon Neyfakh pointed out yesterday, Walker does not have a good record.

All will be revealed in time, but for now, it’s hard to know the direction Walker and the Kochs are taking together or separately–or whether in fact they’re all just winging it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.