Walker Stalls in Trump Traffic Jam
When Scott Walker began his presidential bid several months ago, his resume and cover letter looked sterling: a conservative governor of a blue state in the Midwest, a young man with evangelical roots and a proven record of victory over liberal forces. Walker was simultaneously the unshakable fighter conservatives craved and the battle-tested, donor-approved executive the establishment could get behind.
But the rigorous course of the presidential campaign exposed the Wisconsin governor’s vulnerabilities on a national stage. What’s more, the rise of the political outsider, particularly Donald Trump, has overshadowed and undermined Walker’s pitch.
In trying to navigate a jam-packed freeway, Walker seems to have trouble picking the conservative or moderate lane. Maneuverings over the past several months put the governor at risk of turning off both sides of the party and running off the road.
Among GOP candidates operating in this uncharted era of Trump domination, Walker has arguably taken the biggest hit.
A new Des Moines Register poll over the weekend found Walker’s support falling in Iowa, the state essential to his campaign, amid the rise of political outsiders Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. While Walker’s favorability numbers remain notably high in the Hawkeye State—72 percent—only 8 percent of likely caucus-goers there support him, compared to 17 percent in May. Meanwhile, Carson’s support in Iowa has jumped from 10 percent to 18 percent; Trump has risen from 4 percent to 23 percent, putting him in the lead.
Amid the shift in poll numbers, Walker has tried to tap into primary voters’ frustration with the political system and the GOP, maintaining that experience should still be key in determining the next president.
“I think the biggest spark for us is getting the message out that now's not the time to put in place someone who hasn't been tested before,” Walker said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press" when asked if Trump’s surge has shifted his strategy.
“We thought earlier this year that this was going to be a tight race against a bunch of different qualified candidates, and that the candidate that had the strongest message and ultimately the best organization would be the one that's going to win,” he said. “It's like Big Ten football. It's blocking, it's tackling.” Walker’s campaign has experienced bursts of energy and momentum-curbing stalls and stumbles.
The latest setback came recently when Walker struggled to articulate his position on birthright citizenship, an issue brought into contention by Trump’s immigration proposal. (Walker ultimately settled on an answer: that he would not address the issue until the border was secure). This came after Walker renounced his previous support for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.
Walker also raised eyebrows this weekend when he said on "Meet the Press" that building a wall on the Canadian border is "a legitimate issue for us to look at."
Then, in a peculiar move, he called on the president to rescind his invitation to the Chinese president for a state visit next month. The governor cited the stock market tumble as the reason, criticizing China for cyberattacks on America, human rights violations and military action in the South China Sea. The move was seen by some as insincere—more of an effort to keep up with Trump than a well-thought-out strategy.
“I'm literally dizzy trying to keep track of where he's at, and in Iowa, he's the incredible shrinking candidate right now,” says Doug Gross, a Republican strategist in the Hawkeye State not affiliated with any of the campaigns. “He is trying to occupy every lane, and in this environment, where authenticity is so important, he's coming off as an opportunistic candidate who doesn't know who he is.”
The authenticity factor has come to play a major role in this campaign as voters signal in polls that they prefer non-politicians to career officeholders. In addition to Trump, outsiders Carson and Carly Fiorina have also seen their numbers climb. Together, the three make up roughly 40 percent of voter support right now.
Walker has recently responded to this by going after his own party, particularly Republicans in Congress, in the rollout of his health care plan this month. The two-term governor has positioned himself as a Washington outsider from the beginning, but he has also been in politics in Wisconsin for almost all of his adult life.
Several candidates have had to adjust their election strategies to compete with the unexpected rise of Trump, and it’s difficult to change positions on issues without seeming overtly political. But Walker’s stumble over the 14th Amendment and his more aggressive approach to China stood out. Walker has also taken more conservative stances on Common Core and abortion since running for president.
“Voters sense when a candidate changed positions for political expediency and they don't like it,” says John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former congressional aide. “I think Walker's shifting positions have hurt him. There are plenty of candidates out there and voters usually gravitate to the ones they trust the most.”
Iowa strategists note that Walker has built a healthy campaign operation, especially in Iowa, and that the candidate and his team know his strengths and weaknesses. Still, the governor seems intent on balancing the two sides of the party. On Friday, for example, the governor gave a foreign policy speech in South Carolina that seemed designed to reestablish himself as a leading GOP contender and demonstrate his progress in understanding world affairs, considered a weak spot.
In his speech, Walker criticized Hillary Clinton, using the controversy surrounding classified emails on her private server to raise questions about her ability to serve as commander in chief. Walker also took a swipe at Jeb Bush for refusing to commit to repealing the Iran nuclear deal on the first day of his presidency. “Unlike others, I don’t need months or years to mull this over,” he said.
Earlier this year, Walker came under fire for saying his handling of pro-union protestors in the Wisconsin Capitol prepared him for taking on ISIS. Walker’s Wisconsin record is the foundation of his presidential pitch, and he leaned in on that Friday.
“Now is not the time for untested leadership,’’ he said. “I have been tested like no other candidate in this race.’’
Still, there are questions about his durability on the national stage. He held his own at the GOP debate earlier this month, but he didn’t stand out from the crowd. As Walker tries to regain his footing in this race, the pressure will be on him to make an impact in the next debate in September.
The governor is at his best when he’s fending off attacks from the left. He came alive at the Iowa fair earlier this month after he was interrupted by a group of hecklers, telling them forcefully that he wouldn’t be intimidated. Last week, Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore accused Walker of “tightening the noose, literally, around African-Americans,” when he described his opposition to raising the federal minimum wage and his support for voter ID laws, among other policies. The controversial comment served as a reminder of how Walker aggravates liberals.
Walker wears such attacks like a badge of honor. When asked about them Friday by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, he replied, “I’m not intimidated by this. I wasn’t intimidated in Wisconsin, and I won’t be intimidated as president.”
Also in that interview, Walker defended fellow presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas senator who is hoping to catch Trump’s supporters, against criticism from House Speaker John Boehner.
Cruz is also Walker’s competitor for the conservative vote in Iowa, especially as the governor seems to veer more and more toward that lane than the establishment one.
“Like almost everybody else running, these guys are all trying to get some traction in a Trump world. Walker is especially boring in this Trump world,” Feehery says. “I think he thinks the only way he can get traction is to move further to the right. Not sure if that works, but that is his strategy.”
But Walker’s maneuverings also risk putting off conservatives.
“It has always been my opinion that if Scott Walker ran for president as a conservative, he would find plenty of success. As we are now seeing, he’s not running as a strong, reform-minded conservative, and that is severely hurting him in a state like Iowa,” writes Iowa Republican strategist Craig Robinson. “In Iowa it’s not good enough to have the right position on an issue. Evangelical voters here are looking for conviction on their issues, and they are not seeing that from Walker.”
In many ways, Walker is “getting squeezed by candidates on both sides” of the GOP, says one party strategist in Iowa. The challenge for Walker, the strategist says, is finding a spot and sticking to it. “The caucus process is many things, but one thing it does is it smokes out inauthenticity.”