Scott Walker--Sleeper in 2016 GOP Presidential Race?

Scott Walker--Sleeper in 2016 GOP Presidential Race?
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Among the vast number of Republicans considering a run for president, two candidates with the familiar last names of Bush and Romney are sucking up most of the attention in the early going.

And for now, that’s just fine by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a preacher’s son who is finding virtue in patience.

The early, visible and loud machinations of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie don’t seem to bother Walker. Recently re-elected to a second term—his third win in four years, considering his success in beating back a 2012 recall effort—Walker is making moves ahead of 2016, to be sure: he hired a top national strategist to run his campaign, with more senior staff hires coming soon, and is creating a political entity to allow him to raise money and travel. He is boning up with regular policy briefings and is traveling to Iowa next week for an early GOP cattle call. But Walker’s approach is more tortoise than hare, steadiness over speed.

Walker isn’t vying to be the top contender in the Republican field—at least not yet. He’s carving out a spot now as Second Best, a candidate who can build consensus among voters seeking an alternative to the establishment or far right, who will be ready if and when a preferred candidate falters.

“He could be the No. 2 choice of a lot of people, and being No. 2 is not a bad place to be,” says a GOP strategist familiar with the field.

Bush’s early moves accelerated a race that’s filling up with big names and personalities. Candidates are working to secure precious donors and carve out a niche in a crowded field that includes current and former governors, U.S. senators, a Baptist preacher and a conservative surgeon. At least four candidates have run before or have had parents (or a sibling) run before. The size and scale of the cast raises the question: is there room near the top for another candidate?

Walker seems to think so. While Bush, Romney and Christie compete for the establishment lane, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and others seek out the conservative base, Walker is fashioning himself as something of a hybrid, capable of winning the hearts of the base and the minds of the center-right.

Walker’s take-no-prisoners approach with unions over collective bargaining rights catapulted him onto the national stage. He survived an expensive recall election in 2012 that put him on the map of possible presidential contenders and won re-election in November by six points—running as a conservative in a state that has chosen the Democratic candidate for president since 1984. 

"He's been through the fire. The recall was as much a national election" as it was a state referendum, says Tim Miller of America Rising, an opposition research firm that helped Republican candidates like Walker in the 2014 election.

While Walker is well known for the union fight, he is known among activists as a conservative Christian who signed concealed-carry legislation in Wisconsin and pushed the legislature to repeal Common Core standards. Walker is also directing his attorney general to file a lawsuit over federal energy regulations he said would hurt manufacturing. He is pitching himself as a leader with battle-tested skills who can effectively manage the government while advancing conservative principles.

Notably, in a recent Republican poll of GOP contenders in Iowa, Walker garnered 10 percentage points, fourth behind Romney, Bush and undetermined candidates chosen by respondents who hadn’t made up their minds.

In his state of the state speech Tuesday night, Walker prioritized government reform. “I believe that government has grown too big and too intrusive in our lives and must be reined in, but the government that is left must work,” he said. “As taxpayers ... we should demand a government that is more efficient, more effective, and more accountable to the public.”

National Democrats have been campaigning against Walker for years. “Scott Walker likes to think he can bring the Wisconsin way to Washington, but he’s already brought the Washington way to Wisconsin,” read a DNC statement ahead of Walker’s Tuesday night address. “Instead of being the job creator he said he was going to be, Walker focused on gutting unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and blocking affordable health care for Wisconsinites.”

Walker’s allies think he has broad appeal—for tea partiers who love the fight Ted Cruz brings and for rank-and-file Republicans who want to win elections and see electability in candidates like Bush. Walker supporters say the governor is unique in that he can operate in and navigate between the two worlds seamlessly.

And while Walker doesn’t have the extensive donor networks of a Bush or a Romney, he has some infrastructure from his past three campaigns. Allies would argue there are few big name, deep-pocketed donors in the country who didn’t give Walker money for the recall election.

Still, Walker has a lot to overcome. Tim Pawlenty, a fellow midwestern governor whose 2012 presidential campaign flamed out early, is often invoked in conversations about Walker and whether he has what it takes to gain significant traction, let alone win the nomination.

While Walker is well known among GOP activists, he has ground to make up in national name ID. He is hardly ever mentioned in stories and conversations about the top tier. Sometimes he’s not even mentioned in polls. The governor will have to focus on selling his biography and record and establish himself as someone who can not only take on fellow Republicans but also go head-to-head with Hillary Clinton.

In a recent interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Walker addressed those concerns. “Yeah, I’m nice. I’m midwestern nice. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone’s ever wondered if I was able to stand up and fight the big issues.”

In the immediate future, the governor has work to do in state. He is focused on getting his budget through the legislature, he has said, and that likely will keep him busy until late spring/early summer.

In many ways, that timing suits him, allowing him to continue to build a campaign without garnering too much potentially damaging attention. Walker has a delicate balance to strike in terms of putting himself out there this early, especially with the challenge of raising money and securing staff.

“The last thing you want to do is the meteoric rise,” said the GOP strategist. “[Rick] Perry went from 0-100 in two days and it took only six weeks for him to fall back to earth.”

Walker will get a taste of the 2016 campaign trail in Iowa next Friday. And he will get to mingle with Republican donors, operatives, and committee members later this week at the RNC’s winter meeting in California, where he will be headlining Thursday night’s dinner event. Mitt Romney will also be there, giving a speech the following evening.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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