Five Reasons Scott Walker Was Never Destined To Win the GOP Nomination

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was never ready for presidential primetime.


His Monday announcement ending his 2016 presidential campaign was being attributed to a lack of fundraising prowess. However, even if Walker had overspent and built an unsustainable campaign, it’s clear that the bevy of billionaires who are singularly backing other GOP presidential contenders saw something in Walker that gave them pause. Meanwhile, voters in early states who liked Walker last winter clearly moved on as other candidates appeared more attractive.

There are at least five key factors that have contributed to Walker’s surprising early decision to quit.

1. Walker Couldn't Build A Base Beyond His Backyard. Walker sought to position himself as a hardcore social and economic conservative. The son of a conservative preacher who grew up in rural Iowa and moved to Wisconsin as a youth, Walker generated tremendous enthusiasm last winter at right-wing events in rural Iowa that appealed to the most draconian segments of the GOP.

In short, Walker was proud of his abusive record as governor. He portrayed himself as the toughest fighter among candidates, saying his surprise attacks on Wisconsin's unions showed he was ready for the presidency. He took many other nasty actions to build a national reputation, from signing anti-abortion bills into law, expanding state prisons, embracing charter schools and shepherding into law many pieces of legislation drafted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), from corporate tax breaks to tougher voter ID requirements to discourage voter turnout.

Walker didn't evolve as a candidate. Walker knew how to speak to people who grew up in small towns like he did, but he remained notoriously small-minded as a candidate, especially when facing unexpected questions from the press on larger issues.

2. Walker Showed Early He Was Too Unpolished. Despite his early popularity in Iowa polls, there were signs that Walker was too unpolished and did not have a statesmanlike skill early on. Last winter, in the first of many gaffes, Walker said that his battles with pro-union protesters prepared him to fight ISIS—the Islamic state, which generated ridicule inside and outside GOP circles. When Walker spent taxpayer dollars to go to England on a supposed trade mission, instead of burnishing his international credentials, Walker was mocked by the British press for ducking questions on human evolution and science.   

Walker campaigned on the theme that he was “unintimidated” by the labor protests, and survived a recall election in a purple state. But as the winter continued into spring, his most recent state budget also showed would-be presidential backers that his politics were thuggish and coarse. He attacked the University of Wisconsin’s tenure system, cut $250 million from the U.W. budget and allocated that same amount as a subsidy for a new sports arena in Milwaukee, and signed strident new anti-abortion laws. These steps re-enforced the perception that Walker was not smooth enough to win nationally, when compared to other governor-candidates, namely Florida’s Jeb Bush and Ohio’s John Kasich.

3. Walker’s Overconfidence Blinded His Weaknesses. Perhaps the high point of Walker’s campaign came this spring, when the libertarian energy industry billionaires from Kansas, Charles and David Koch, let it be known that Walker was their top choice for the GOP nomination. The Kochs’ political network pledged to raise and spend nearly $900 million in 2016, perhaps giving Walker a false sense of security that if he built a large campaign organization that they would pick up the tab. However, as Walker started to plummet in this summer’s polls—in Iowa and other early primary states—it appears that he was naïve about his prospects. Anybody who has been around presidential campaigns—and this was Walker’s first—knows how unlikely it is for a new candidate to sustain frontrunner status for more than a year to the nominating convention.

4. Trump Knocked The Wind Out Of Walker’s Sails. Donald Trump’s late spring entrance into the Republican contest also contributed to Walker’s demise. During campaign appearances and the nationally televised debates, Trump attacked Walker for his lousy economic management of Wisconsin—citing statistics that showed he was unsuccessful as a governor in turning his state’s economy around. For a candidate that sought to brand himself as the toughest Republican, having his record skewered by a more forceful Trump further eviscerated his support. Walker may have built a record as a pro-corporate governor willing to implement whatever model legislation drafted by ALEC, however the results—as Trump noted—weren’t successful with creating jobs, ending state red ink, attracting businesses, etc.

5. Walker’s Most Recent Moves Smacked Of Desperation. After floundering in the nationally televised debates—instead of rising to the front of the pack as a confident leader, Walker doubled down on a series of right-wing proposals that clearly were intended to please the anti-union Kochs and other libertarians. However, the people who knew Walker best in Wisconsin, openly mocked these moves as the last-ditch attempt of a floundering presidential candidate. Walker called for ending federal employee unions and other anti-labor proposals. However, his hometown paper in Milwaukee, which had endorsed him for governor three times, ran an opinion piece by a top GOP legislative staffer, who said that Walker hid and cowered during the 2011 anti-union battles. And it editorialized that Walker could not be trusted.

Walker’s departure doesn’t change the dynamics of the 2016 Republican nominating contest very much, for several reasons. First, he was in the low single digits in the polls anyway, so there’s not much for the other candidates to inherit to boost their support. Moreover, there are other governors and ex-governors running whose agenda is largely the same as Walker but who are softer on camera. Jeb Bush has just as strong an anti-abortion record, as does Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie. And on right-wing economics, these governors essentially embrace the same pro-corporate agenda.    

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