Walker's Weakness: Did He Peak Too Soon?

Walker's Weakness: Did He Peak Too Soon?
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On the evening Scott Walker announced his exit from the presidential race, two leading contenders for the GOP nomination were dominating the day’s news because of their controversial comments regarding Muslims in America.

The events—Donald Trump’s refusal to apologize for anti-Muslim and birther sentiments at his town hall and Ben Carson’s refusal to walk back his argument that a Muslim should not be president—were not issues the Republican establishment envisioned confronting, with so much at stake in this campaign.

And the environment, one in which political outsiders were ruling the political world, certainly wasn't one that Walker, a two-term governor from Wisconsin, had originally anticipated.

Monday night, as he announced the end of his campaign in a nondescript room in a Madison government office building, far removed from the jazzy rollout of his campaign just two months earlier in his hometown of Waukesha, Walker lamented the state of discourse in his party and the fact that Trump, though he did not mention him by name, had stomped all over its dreams. 

"I believe I'm being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field," Walker said, suspending his campaign. "I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current frontrunner.”

But as much as Walker bemoaned his party’s frontrunner and the state of play, the reality was that the Wisconsin governor had failed to navigate the waters of a presidential campaign, especially when they turned turbulent. Walker, who planned to campaign as an anti-Washington outsider himself, had already stumbled on the national stage and failed to find his footing before Trump and the outsiders overshadowed and undermined him.

By the time the Trump hurricane came around, Walker was already equivocating on whether the president was a Christian, punting questions about climate change, shifting to a more conservative approach to immigration and opposing a citizenship pathway for the undocumented.

Trump’s emergence magnified his shakiness, particularly when the conversation turned to whether the 14th Amendment should be repealed. It took Walker several tries to find an answer.

When given the chance in the first debate to remind voters why he was considered a leading contender—he had a winning conservative record and recent wins in a blue state—he largely blended into the background. He failed to distinguish himself at the second debate, though he was more energized and forceful in the beginning. Then, as donors grew anxious, his poll numbers plummeted.

Over the weekend, Walker stared down a new reality: he was once a frontrunner for the nomination and now stood at less that 1 percent in the polls.

Walker might have suffered from setting expectations too high from the start. He burst onto the scene with an expectations-defying speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January; by the time he announced his bid for president, in July, his advisers were bragging they would win Iowa. 

During his first swing through Iowa following his announcement, Walker insisted his early lead would not be a detriment. 

“I used to run track in my small town,” Walker told reporters during the first stop of his official campaign in Iowa. “I had plenty of victories that I came from behind on. I had others where my coach used to say, ‘It’s a lot easier to win if you’re ahead.’"

But as Walker climbed in the polls, his campaign was not as strong as it seemed. 

The campaign staffed up quickly, fleshing out into a professional operation, but without the consistent fundraising to sustain it. 

More troubling, even to some aides within the campaign, was that Walker did not establish a clear lane within the Republican primary. As Ted Cruz courted the most conservative voters in the party, and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio went after moderates, Walker was something of a man without a country—and ended up winning over no one.  

Without a clear ideological footing, and lacking the policy chops of some other candidates, Walker also foundered on substance, flip-flopping or giving mushy answers to questions on immigration reform and other key issues.

Walker “took way too many positions on several issues,” noted one Republican strategist working for a rival campaign. “(He) lost credibility as a conservative with convictions."

Walker reached his decision to bow out of the race as he faced down a daunting fiscal outlook, with too little money coming in to support the campaign’s existing staff. He would need to lay off dozens of people and shift focus from a national campaign to a more humble Iowa one. Evidently, that option was ultimately unacceptable. 

The decision stunned some senior aides who expected the campaign, with some changes, could right itself and mount a comeback. On the morning of Walker’s decision, one aide speculated that a campaign shakeup could be forthcoming— but Walker suspending his bid was not even part of the discussion. After all, he had a full schedule of events and fundraising planned, and he had told the press of his plan to double down in Iowa.

By the time Walker pulled the plug, rivals were already on the hunt for his staffers, donors, and supporters. While the Wisconsin governor had little equity in the polls, his network, especially in Iowa, is vaunted. What’s more, his exit leaves more room for candidates Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich to vie for establishment support. 

On Monday, before Walker even made his exit official, his New Hampshire co-chair jumped to the Rubio campaign. Also on Monday, former Wisconsin state party chairman Richard Garber endorsed Bush.

Ohio’s Kasich wasted no time positioning himself as the only midwestern governor left in the race, especially as he expands his New Hampshire-centered campaign to Iowa.

“We feel like there’s an opportunity for us as [Kasich] is now the only other midwestern governor in the race with a record of results, winning a purple state,” said Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf, noting the opening of opportunities in Iowa as well as Michigan and Illinois. 

The sharp fall of the other current governor doesn’t seem to scare Kasich. “We have always maintained that you don't want to be first in January or March or even now,” Schrimpf said. “You want to build your organization and peak at the right time. We’ve been building slowly, and we feel good that we are spending within in our means.” 

Beyond individual campaigns, Walker’s exit also creates an opening in Iowa.

“I think it makes Iowa a little easier to navigate,” says Iowa GOP strategist Craig Robinson, noting that Walker’s abandonment of a once-aggressive campaign across the state makes room for conservatives. “Without Walker in the mix, maybe candidates like Rubio and Cruz will now see an opportunity to commit more time and effort on the trail in Iowa,” he said.

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

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.


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