Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is making the 2016 “invisible primary” easy to see.
His success at GOP events and in early polls has left him positioned as, potentially, a significant contender for the Republican presidential nomination. The first votes won’t be cast for nearly a year, but fundraising and hiring are well underway in a process known as the “invisible primary” where candidates test the waters and jockey for position.
Republicans who want to avoid the old “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line” method of choosing nominees have a big crush on the Midwestern governor who made a national name for himself by ending his state’s collective bargaining for public employees.
In 2012, the GOP primary campaign became something of a flavor-of-the-month club among the large field, as Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain all took their turn atop the polls. So far this year, only Walker has run ahead of the pack, competing with former Florida governor Jeb Bush for early front-runner status. But with this ascendancy comes increased scrutiny, and Walker has stumbled at times.
How the Wisconsin governor handles his early prominence going forward will have a big influence on whether he’s Baskin-Robbins’ “Snacknado” ice cream or a candidate who withstands a nearly two-year-long campaign.
“He does have a buzz factor that is very real, if you talk to any of the activists in the early primary states,” says Kevin Madden, a GOP consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “What they know about him, they really like.”
In the Feb. 28 straw poll at the CPAC gathering of conservative activists, Walker, 47, came in a close second to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who won for the third time in a row. A Quinnipiac poll out Thursday shows Walker with a narrow lead over Bush nationally..
Walker tried to maintainhis momentum this weekend at two events that are drawing most of the potential 2016 Republican field, including Bush. On Saturday, Walker he appeared at a donor meeting for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in Georgia. Then he flew to Des Moines for the Iowa Agriculture Summit, a candidate QA hosted by Bruce Rastetter, an agribusiness millionaire and GOP donor. Later this month, he’ll also visit the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
In Iowa, Walker reversed his position on the renewable fuel standard that requires the use of corn-based ethanol in fuel, a requirement popular with Iowa Republicans but one that Walker had opposed for years. He told Rastetter Saturday that he supported the continued of the renewable fuel standard with a plan to phase it out at an unspecified date.
EARLY CHALLENGES AND SCRUTINY
At the same time, Walker continues to stake out positions to appeal to conservative primary voters, even if that requires him to amend or reverse his previous stances. But the sudden spotlight has brought tougher questions and has magnified any misstep.
On Sunday, Walker said he no longer favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “My mind has changed, I’m flat out saying it,” Walker said on Fox News Sunday
During that campaign he also said he had no interest in a right-to-work law for Wisconsin, which would outlaw union contracts that require employees to pay dues. On Monday, he will sign such a measure into law. For that, Politifact awarded him a “Full Flop.”
Walker also raised eyebrows at CPAC when he cited his experience with union protesters as preparation for taking on the Islamic State. To top it all off, at a candidate forum hosted by the Club for Growth last week, the moderator suggested Walker did not understand the Dodd-Frank banking legislation, according to a Politico
The next audiences will be equally tough, whether on national security at AEI or ethanol subsidies in Iowa. Ramesh Ponnuru, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and senior editor for National Review,
“He’s going to need to do more than just strike an attitudinal tone with these people,” says Ponnuru.
ESTABLISHMENT AND ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT APPEAL
The meat of Walker’s appeal to Republicans is his victory over public employee unions and victory in the subsequent recall election in 2012.
As a result, Walker “has an unusual breadth of support. He is drawing from conservative, anti-establishment voters who don’t want Jeb Bush, but he is also drawing from establishment-oriented voters to whom he is a solid Republican governor,” Ponnuru says. “In that respect, his achievement already exceeds that of the flavor-of-the month candidate the last time around.”
He also has a national fundraising network, thanks to the recall election. Of the 595,000 contributions Walker has received since he started running for governor in 2010, nearly 60% come from outside Wisconsin.
Not all of those donors would necessarily support Walker in a presidential primary against other GOP contenders, but enough will, says Fred Malek, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, who is neutral in the 2016 primary.
“That same donor network I believe will support him at this point,” he says. “Nobody will raise nearly as much as Jeb Bush is going to raise, but Scott Walker, with his network and his record and his surge in the polls, will have resources.”
Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for Our American Revival, Walker’s fundraising committee, points out that the campaign is barely underway â€” in fact, it isn’t even a campaign. Staff is barely in place and briefing books and expert advisers are still being assembled, she says, but Walker’s sudden surge means expectations have also accelerated.
“It’s very early,” says Kukowski, previously press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “He doesn’t know what the future holds, isn’t an announced candidate and the reason he’s getting this kind of scrutiny now is because of his success recently.”
A national candidate will inevitably be asked about a far broader range of issues than a governor, Madden says. “You’re only going to get away with ‘no comment’ or ‘I don’t have an opinion on that’ for so long.”
Fortunately for Walker proto-campaign events, such as those coming this weekend, are the right time to learn on the job. “Better now than when you’re on a debate stage in Des Moines sometime in the summer and voters are starting to shape their opinion about you,” Madden says.
“Early gaffes don’t have to matter,” Ponnuru says, “if he’s learning from them.”