Against The Grain

5 Takeaways From Scott Walker’s Withdrawal

The weakness of super PACs, the window for Marco Rubio, and a Midwest scramble.

Scott Walker speaks to the media in the spin room after last week's Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Bloomberg AFP/Getty
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Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 21, 2015, 5:58 p.m.

Scott Walk­er’s sud­den sus­pen­sion of his pres­id­en­tial race is one of the biggest sur­prises in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics this year. The Wis­con­sin gov­ernor, who looked like a ser­i­ous con­tender to win the nom­in­a­tion, saw his stand­ing di­min­ish over the sum­mer as flash­i­er, more-out­spoken con­ser­vat­ive chal­lengers stole the lime­light. Three months ago, he was polling in first place in Iowa and in some na­tion­al polls. In the CNN/ORC na­tion­al poll of Re­pub­lic­ans re­leased Monday, Walk­er didn’t even re­gister at 1 per­cent among Re­pub­lic­an voters.

Walk­er’s with­draw­al of­fers some clear les­sons for the 14 re­main­ing can­did­ates—about the im­port­ance of rais­ing hard money, hav­ing a clear mes­sage de­signed for the long haul, un­der­stand­ing the tox­icity of be­ing in­volved in polit­ics, and the im­port­ance of for­eign policy in today’s Re­pub­lic­an Party.

Here are five of the most im­port­ant takeaways from Walk­er’s with­draw­al:

1. Hard money (and spend­ing dis­cip­line) mat­ters. It’s iron­ic that, in the age of the su­per PAC, when it’s easi­er than ever to raise out­side money, two ac­com­plished big-name gov­ernors dropped out in the sum­mer in part be­cause they couldn’t raise enough hard money to sus­tain their op­er­a­tions. Walk­er, who entered the race Ju­ly 13, had the sup­port of a well-fun­ded 527 (which raised $20 mil­lion at the end of June) and the ex­cite­ment of many of the wealth­i­est donors in the party. Now, be­fore he even has a chance to file his first fun­drais­ing re­port, he’s out of the race be­cause he couldn’t get enough donors to com­mit to his cam­paign. “No amount of su­per PAC $ can suf­fice for hard dol­lars,” a Walk­er ad­viser told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an email.

Su­per PACs can’t pay for travel and cam­paign staff. And if lead­ing can­did­ates race to hire top staff early and can’t bring enough money in­to the race, they’re in ser­i­ous trouble. Out­side of Jeb Bush, Walk­er had one of the largest, most ex­pens­ive staffs of any can­did­ate. When donors star­ted pan­ick­ing about the lack of pro­gress with the cam­paign this sum­mer, it cre­ated a vi­cious cycle where it was hard for him to raise enough money to pay the bills and travel across the coun­try.

When as­sess­ing the up­com­ing third-quarter re­ports, look as closely at the hard dol­lar totals as the im­press­ive su­per PAC funds. It’s worth not­ing that Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio led the hard-money pack in the second quarter; both are well-po­si­tioned to go fur­ther along even if they suf­fer set­backs along the way.

2. Long-term strategy, not short-term tac­tics, will win the GOP nom­in­a­tion. From the be­gin­ning of the race, Walk­er viewed him­self as his own best strategist—a glar­ing red flag that fore­shad­owed his prob­lems. In real­ity, Walk­er un­der­stood tac­tics, but didn’t have any­one on his cam­paign payroll that was fo­cused on long-term strategy.

Walk­er began the race by fo­cus­ing on his cre­den­tials as a fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive, re­mind­ing voters about his fight with Big Labor in Wis­con­sin and his cuts to gov­ern­ment spend­ing. But as Iowa looked like a tempt­ing tar­get, his cam­paign got dis­trac­ted by so­cial is­sues. After the Su­preme Court ruled in fa­vor of leg­al­iz­ing gay mar­riage, Walk­er went fur­ther than all the es­tab­lish­ment-friendly can­did­ates by back­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment over­turn­ing the de­cision. Not only did Walk­er turn off Cham­ber of Com­merce-ori­ented Re­pub­lic­ans with his so­cially con­ser­vat­ive turn, but he found that the pan­der­ing didn’t help him much either, since he was com­pet­ing against more au­then­t­ic chal­lengers on that front—in­clud­ing Ben Car­son, Mike Hucka­bee, and Cruz. And by tele­graph­ing so early that he was go­ing all-in for Iowa, he boxed him­self in­to a point where it be­came Iowa-or-bust for his cam­paign—just at the same time as he was be­ing over­taken by oth­er can­did­ates.

3. Know your for­eign policy. At a time when Re­pub­lic­an voters are as con­cerned about the threat of ter­ror­ism as the state of the eco­nomy, Walk­er’s in­ex­per­i­ence deal­ing with the sub­ject be­came a li­ab­il­ity. He drew cri­ti­cism from con­ser­vat­ives at this year’s CPAC con­fer­ence when he said his suc­cess tak­ing on labor uni­ons in Wis­con­sin pre­pared him for deal­ing with the grow­ing threat of the Is­lam­ic State. He doubled down on that point for a while un­til real­iz­ing it was a li­ab­il­ity—and later crammed in for­eign policy study ses­sions. Walk­er’s early trip to Lon­don, and avoid­ing pub­lic an­swers to ser­i­ous ques­tions, only raised ques­tions about his read­i­ness to be com­mand­er-in-chief. And his in­clin­a­tion to use clev­er pre­pared talk­ing points to dis­cuss for­eign policy—“if you find mush, you push” was a fa­vor­ite line of his—couldn’t match the more ser­i­ous an­swers on the sub­ject from can­did­ates such as Ru­bio, Bush, and even Carly Fior­ina.

4. In today’s GOP, it’s bet­ter to be a tough-talk­ing out­sider than an ac­com­plished con­ser­vat­ive in­sider. Walk­er’s cam­paign theme poin­ted to his re­cord as a gov­ernor who fights the lib­er­al es­tab­lish­ment—and wins. But on the cam­paign trail, his mild-mannered per­son­al­ity didn’t match the mood of an angry GOP elect­or­ate. He nev­er was a par­tic­u­larly cha­ris­mat­ic politi­cian; even when he chal­lenged lib­er­al act­iv­ists in Wis­con­sin, he seemed preter­nat­ur­ally se­rene. His at­tempt to chal­lenge a heck­ler at the Iowa State Fair by say­ing, “I won’t be in­tim­id­ated!” was a be­lated at­tempt to show his tough­ness, in­stead of telling tales of his lead­er­ship in Wis­con­sin. The tough-talk­ing rhet­or­ic of Don­ald Trump and the in-your-face act­iv­ism of Hucka­bee res­on­ates more with con­ser­vat­ives who are look­ing for a street fight­er to take on Pres­id­ent Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton.

At the same time, con­ser­vat­ive voters are more in­ter­ested in total polit­ic­al out­siders who nev­er served in elect­ive of­fice than politi­cians who worked from with­in the sys­tem. It’s why Fior­ina, whose re­sume is as es­tab­lish­ment as any politi­cian’s, can take off simply be­cause she nev­er won a polit­ic­al race. Walk­er, for all his suc­cesses, has es­sen­tially been a polit­ic­al lifer since col­lege. (He didn’t even gradu­ate in or­der to pur­sue his polit­ic­al in­terests.) As with four-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Walk­er found out that ex­per­i­ence is more of a bur­den these days than an as­set.

5. Ru­bio stands to be­ne­fit the most. Walk­er ended his cam­paign polling in the low single-di­gits, but his early with­draw­al is more of a boon to Ru­bio than any­one else. Ru­bio and Walk­er star­ted out com­pet­ing against each oth­er to be a vi­able al­tern­at­ive to Bush. It’s hard to see many Walk­er donors, staffers, and sup­port­ers mov­ing to Bush’s cam­paign, giv­en that dy­nam­ic. There’s a reas­on they didn’t get be­hind Bush the first time, when he looked like an es­tab­lish­ment force.   

Ru­bio’s chal­lenge is to con­sol­id­ate the anti-Bush, es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented slice of the elect­or­ate. Walk­er, along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have been his biggest threats on that front. Now one po­ten­tially power­ful rival is out of the pic­ture.

One oth­er con­sequence: The del­eg­ate-rich Mid­west­ern primar­ies, where Walk­er looked to dom­in­ate, now are wide open. Even though he’s more mod­er­ate than Walk­er, Kasich is likely to make a play for the April 5 win­ner-take-all Wis­con­sin primary. And he’s already work­ing hard to or­gan­ize for the March 8 Michigan primar­ies; Walk­er’s with­draw­al may make his path a bit easi­er.

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