A Motorcycle Tour Leads Scott Walker's Campaign In Some Unusual Directions

Sep 7, 2015

Republican Scott Walker is traveling through New Hampshire by motorcycle. As it turns out, touring the state in an unusual way can lead a candidate in some unusual directions.

Some of Scott Walker’s backers want him to turn up the energy on his presidential campaign. Revving the engine of a motorcycle looks like the way he plans to do it.

Motorcycles - particularly those made by Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson - have been a big part of Walker’s campaigns since his days as a Milwaukee county executive. These days he makes regular campaign stops at Harley dealerships, occasionally flashes his Harley wallet and credit card, and talks about his prized 2003 Road King with fellow riders.

"Same logo - I’ve got whitewall tires too," Walker tells Bill Marco of Henniker, who rides the same model. "Same saddlebags. It's exactly the same other than the color." 

Democrats like to point out that Harleys are made by union workers; organized labor has been one of Walker’s loudest critics in Wisconsin. Harley-Davidson officials say the company is politically neutral when it comes to Walker. Whatever the political dynamics, Walker says he's hooked on bikes. Campaigning is good, he says, but riding is even better.  On this day, he and about two dozen riders are in Milford to kick off a motorcycle tour of New Hampshire’s 10 counties.

"Freedom - being on a bike," Walker says," and thinking live free or die – that's the motto here in New Hampshire, but that’s what I think about on a motorcycle, out on the free road on the road enjoying yourself."

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (center) at Kimball Farm Ice Cream in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, September 6, 2015.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

"If they ride a bike they've got to be honest"

But can a candidate pick up votes just by riding a motorcycle? We find the answer at the first stop, the Kimball Farm ice cream stand in Jaffrey.

"I think it’s cool!" says Ruth Somero of Hanover. "I’m gonna vote for him just because he rode a bike!" Somero says she was surprised to see Walker here and was even more surprised to learn he was a fellow motorcyclist.

"If they ride a bike they've got to be honest," she says. "I'm telling you, that says a lot. There's just something about it." 

Assuming Somero really is sold, she’s ahead of even some of those riding with Walker. Several say they like the governor but aren’t ready to make up their minds when it’s only September.

One rider, however, has made his choice: Skip Rollins of Newport wears a Walker ‘16 sticker on his leather vest, under a patch that reads “Grumpy Old Biker Bastard.”

"I like the right to work bill, which is huge," Rollins says, "and on top of that he’s totally down to earth. How many people run for president get on a motorcycle and tour a state? And he doesn’t have the attitude that he’s better than someone else. That goes a long way with me."

Rollins, who serves in the State House, says he rode as a younger man. He says he came back to bikes only a few years ago, in honor of his son.

"My son was Specialist Justin Rollins. He was killed March 5, 2007 in Samarra, Iraq. He wanted to buy a nice motorcycle with the money that he couldn’t spend while he was over there, so I took that money when his remains and all of his possessions came home I and went out and bought a nice Road King Screaming Eagle.

"I consider that bike his bike and when I ride I ride with him, and I ride with his spirit."

Under his vest Rollins wears a shirt from a recent motorcycle tour in his son’s honor. Later, Scott Walker shows another rider a similar shirt, which he says he’s going to wear on day two of the trip.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (left) listens as Washington, NH resident Guy Eaton reads a poem Eaton wrote in honor of his visit, September 6, 2015.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

"The kind of Washington I like to be in"

The next stop is Washington, New Hampshire. The Main Street in this town of 1,100 people is remarkably quiet - at least until two dozen Harleys roll through.

Several dozen people greet Walker at the Washington General Store.  One of them is Guy Eaton, who’s had a few jobs in town over the years, including selectman, volunteer mailman, and, as he puts it, "the unofficial poet laureate."

Eaton tells Walker he's written a poem in honor of his visit, which is believed to be only the second appearance by a presidential candidate in town history. (Jon Huntsman dropped by during the 2012 primary season.)

Residents smile and laugh as Eaton stands up, puts on his glasses, and turns Scott Walker’s motorcycle tour into an impromptu poetry reading at the counter of the country store.

"Today we welcome Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker/we hope that he's a doer and not just a talker," Eaton says. "So 'thanks for coming, Governor Walker,' is all we can say/we wish you good luck, that's the Washington way."

Walker likes to criticize Washington, DC in his speeches. Washington, New Hampshire, though, is a different story.

“This is the kind of Washington I like to be in,” Walker says.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (right) talks with Judy Elliott of the American Friends Service Committee in Salisbury, New Hampshire, September 6, 2015.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

There’s no poetry at Walker’s next stop, in Salisbury, New Hampshire – but there are some sharp questions from activists with the American Friends Service Committee. One calls on Walker to support the deal over Iran’s nuclear program, a deal the governor opposes. Another presses him for answers on the influence of lobbyists.

Olivia Zink of Franklin posed this latter question. Afterward, she says she’d been hoping for a clearer answer.

"He talked about the system of lobbying and that we need to do something to address it, but he was very vague," Zink says. "I hope that throughout the next few months in New Hampshire he's able to really begin to articulate his position on how he'll end governing under the influence."

The sign at the 104 Diner in New Hampton, New Hampshire, welcomes Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, September 6, 2015.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

"Be true to your Harley"

Walker has said that he’s not sure how much riding he’d get to do if he was elected president – maybe just around Camp David, he says. The ride to the next stop in New Hampton may explain why. Art Demarais of Northwood says he was following the entourage on his own motorcycle:

"The first bike went off the road because of a piece of wood - he was actually trying to show people there was a piece of wood in the road," Desmarais says. "Apparently he hit it - he went bumping off the road, but he was conscious, he was up."

With medical staff attending to the rider, and an initial impression that the rider's injuries were at most a sprained ankle or knee, Walker decides to continue on. But with little daylight left, he has to move quickly through the 104 Diner in New Hampton before heading to his final stop of the day in Plymouth.

As he returns to his rental bike, Walker shakes off any suggestion that his campaign is running out of time to make an impression on New Hampshire voters. Campaigns, he said, are like motorcycle rides – there are hills and valleys, and you don’t always know what’s around the corner.

"I think the key is to stay constant [with] who you are," Walker says. "This is who I am. I'm not campaigning in a way that's not me. This is who I am, what I do, and that's a good metaphor as well – stay true to your Harley, stay true to who you are, be the person you are from beginning to end, and hope that’s enough to carry you through to the end.

With that, Scott Walker starts up his bike, revs his engine and rides out towards whatever comes next on the New Hampshire campaign trail.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (right) waves as he prepares to ride from New Hampton to Plymouth, New Hampshire, September 6, 2015.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR