WELL, SOMEBODY had to go next. Someone had to follow Rick Perry’s lead in getting out of the race, being unable to take the lead in the race itself. That distinction fell to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who on Monday shuttered his struggling 71-day campaign for the presidency, amid numerous disappointments and missteps.
He leaves behind 14 candidates, some of whom will soon follow his lead, and a comfort with super PACs that points to the problem for bundlers and donors and analysts who ignore a basic political truth: Sooner or later, a campaign with a marginal message, and no messenger, is no campaign at all.
“Today I believe that I am 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,” he said Monday in Madison, Wisc., looking like death eating a saltine cracker.
“With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately. “I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same,” he said, “so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”
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How the mighty fall down go boom. Return with us now to ... March. It was only in March when Walker was the bell cow, the one to beat for the nomination. By then he’d jumped to the front ranks of presidential contenders in Iowa after a fiery, passionately doctrinaire January speech in Des Moines. A thinner field of contenders didn’t hurt either.
“The perception of Scott Walker was that he was this candidate who stood on principle and took the slings and arrows to prove it,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party, to Politico. “Yet his campaign was one of a candidate who was constantly capitulating on issues. Those things undermined his campaign.”
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REMEMBER THAT Walker crack about candidates finding “a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner”? That was his shot at billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump, and he wasn’t alone. Speaking to The New York Times about Walker on Monday, Matt Moore, South Carolina Republican Party chairman, appeared to offer candidate Trump a caution about peaking too early.
“In a different era, Governor Walker could have won the nomination if all he had to worry about was trying to win Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada,” Moore said. “But now that the presidential race has become so nationalized, so early, a candidate can run into big trouble if they peak too early and can’t show donors and voters everywhere that they can recapture momentum.”
Walker supporters, political analysts and others offered various postmortems to The Times and Politico. “Scott, for whatever reason, didn’t connect on TV,” Stan Hubbard, a Minnesota-based TV station owner and big Walker contributor, told The Times. “And if you can’t make it on television today in national politics, you’re dead.”
Pardon our disappearance: I’ve been away for a while, tending to connectivity issues, literal and otherwise. But life don’t stop and neither did I. Let’s play catch-up. This piece is what you would have seen, on the stated date, if the wi-fi of life hadn’t gone down (for a minute).
You shouldn’t be surprised. Look at that face. Scott Walker has the galvanizing panache of a casket salesman. Rhetorically and spiritually, he aspires to Ronald Reagan — check out the asymmetrical hair cleavage evoking the Gipper — but it goes no further than that.
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told The New York Times that Walker “suffered especially because of the ascent of charismatic outsider candidates, pointing to Mr. Trump, [Carly] Fiorina and Ben Carson.”
“I attribute the difficulty here to the outsiders sucking up oxygen and diluting the support for the other candidates,” List told The Times. But that was just part of Walker’s problem. If he had a solid foundation, a basis of support, he could have held on.”
Yeah, but List knows better than that, or he should. In a field this size, holding on isn’t nearly enough. That amounts to holding serve, fighting a defensive war. Having an aggressive hold on 13th place means nothing. With this many candidates in the hunt, you’ve got to keep moving, keep advancing, or they’ll find your bones in the desert. It happened to Perry. Now it’s Walker’s turn.
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WALKER’S SUDDEN-slow-motion implosion also calls into question the power of super PACs, the steroid-laced political action committees that have taken point in national campaigns for their role in fundraising. After Walker’s blistering Des Moines speech in January, the super PACs couldn’t line up fast enough to drop something fat in the Walker war chest.
Fast forward to July and August, a slowly growing field of candidates, and a steadily growing number of Walker unforced errors. The governor’s power as a candidate was a fraction of what it was before the field got crowded, by virtue of the mathematics alone. And the super PAC crowd found that backing a candidate who has no real deep-seated reason to run for the presidency right now — and Scott Walker Has None — was throwing good money after bad.
What might have been a redeeming moment, on the main stage for the Simi Valley debate on Sept. 16, was anything but. It distilled the instant it was obvious that the campaign was over.
Politico reported: “The seeds of Walker’s withdrawal had been planted five nights earlier in Simi Valley, California, when Walker spoke for fewer minutes than any other candidate on the debate stage. Instead of a breakout performance, the closest thing he had to a signature moment came as Carly Fiorina finished her impassioned answer on Planned Parenthood. Walker lifted his finger, as if to interject. He wasn’t called upon. He would speak only once in the next 30 minutes.”
This is what you get when a regional politician powered by a local triumph that gained national attention tries to make himself a national figure by default. Walker’s bona fides in Wisconsin, barely worth much at home, were simply not transferable to the national stage, no matter who his backers were, no matter how big his super PAC is.
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From the Politico interview:
“I did not get a heads-up,” said Richard Roberts, a pharmaceutical executive who hosted Walker in his New Jersey home only three weeks ago and gave $100,000 to Walker’s super PAC in June. “I felt like I’d gone to the wall for him,” Roberts told Politico. “Yes, I was surprised that he didn’t consider me to be within his inner circle, to give me a heads-up, to trust me.”
Walker’s biggest political patrons, the Ricketts family, which has contributed $5 million to his super PAC, felt similarly blindsided, according to an adviser to the Walker campaign. Todd Ricketts, who has been among Walker’s most aggressive fundraisers, did not get a call until later Monday afternoon.
Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, was set to host a Manhattan fundraiser later this week and had been busily organizing a never-before-reported event for Walker bundlers at Wrigley Field on Oct. 2. Even amid sinking poll numbers, turnout was expected to be high. “The Wrigley Field thing was going to be awesome,” said the adviser. “This guy busted his ass for Scott Walker.”
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OF COURSE, there’s a pretty good chance that, as smart and strategic as he thinks he is, Walker didn’t want to talk to Roberts or Ricketts, knowing good and well they’d probably talk him out of quitting the race. At least so soon.
By that point, after an unimpressive debate performance and nursing a status as a statistical asterisk, Walker was all about finding a way to stop the bleeding. Fast. He might have told Roberts and Ricketts beforehand out of courtesy, true enough. But he just didn’t want the White House badly enough. And he didn’t need millionaires to make him think otherwise. And he didn’t need to talk to anyone to know, politically, what he had to do.
It’s 13 months, give or take, to the next presidential election, and five years and change to the one in 2020. Scott Walker has the luxury of time: to mend fences with people he abandoned; to articulate a strategy for winning the White House; to staking out policy prescriptions and daring to stand by them ... and most important, turning up the fire in the belly ... finding a meaningful, inspiring, consequential reason for running in the first place.
Image credits: Walker top: Screengrab from New York Times video. Carly Fiorina: Getty Images. Politico logo: © 2015 Politico LLC. Walker bottom: via The Huffington Post.