Is It Time For Walker To Say A Painful Goodbye To His 2016 Ambitions?

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Sep 21, 2015 11:05 AM
Is It Time For Walker To Say A Painful Goodbye To His 2016 Ambitions?

All good things come to an end. Right now, that should be the mood permeating through the Scott Walker campaign. The latest CNN/ORC  poll showed just how steep this once shining star in the 2016 field has fallen, almost into irrelevancy:[emphasis mine]

Five other candidates received less than one-half of 1 percentage point support: former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker's collapse is especially stark.

Celebrated by conservatives -- in the party's base and its donor class alike -- for his union-busting efforts in Wisconsin, Walker at one point led the field in the key early voting state of Iowa.

His support had already dropped to 5% in a CNN/ORC poll in early September, but the bottom appears to have fallen out completely since then -- with a second flat debate performance coming after criticism of his disparate answers on issues like birthright citizenship.

Walker had three positions in a week on the issue of birthright citizenship (not good), but let's get back to the one-half of one percent part. Team Walker must–to quote Donald Trump– really be feeling like a bunch of “total losers.” This guy was leading in Iowa. He has a narrative that can carry a national campaign. Walker balanced budgets, curbed the excessive power of public sector unions, cut taxes, and has the proud citation of being undefeated against every Democratic attempt to destroy him. The man’s been in campaign mode ever since the 2012 recall; his entire first term as governor was one giant election. In 2010, he’s elected. By 2012, there’s the recall. And by 2014, he’s facing Mary Burke in his re-election bid. Walker should never have been rusty, or at least his political infrastructure, but it seems to have corroded.

After he jumped into the 2016 ring, there was this Politico piece detailing those Walker had defeated in his past elections. The underlying theme: don’t underestimate him; one former rival said, “I could summarize my advice for people running against him…‘Don’t.’” Yet, that was in July, where he was in that weird territory of being the frontrunner or a solid candidate (top three); he’s neither of those now. On average, he’s seventh in the polls in Iowa. Not nearly good enough to win a contest which was widely reported as either a must-win for his campaign or one that would show us why he has what it takes to win this primary. It’s all hereherehereand here, and here–all roads to the White House for Walker go through Iowa. With Trump, Carson, and now Fiorina surging–and with such a big field–support has taken a nosedive. It seems the small-town, pull yourself up by your bootstraps narrative that Walker embodied didn’t catch on with voters.

The first sign that the Walker campaign was sinking was the beginning of August, where it was reported that the governor was reportedly boring conservatives to death* in Iowa:

After seven months as the clear favorite to win this first-in-the-nation caucus state, the Wisconsin governor is suddenly sinking in the polls— overtaken by the summer’s massive anti-establishment wave and at risk of losing his grip.

“He’s lost a lot of momentum here because he didn’t convert that early momentum into committed caucus-goers. Now he’s got to re-start his engine here, and that’s not easy to do,” said Doug Gross, a GOP operative who supported Mitt Romney four years ago and has yet to commit to a candidate this cycle.

[…]

“The enthusiasm right now is clearly on the side of the insurgents,” said Matt Strawn, a former state GOP chairman who is neutral in the current nomination fight. “But the race is just beginning in earnest. It’s one thing to poll high in August, but whether those candidates can withstand the long campaign is still an open question.”

With the caucuses still six months away, longtime political observers here aren’t ready to call Trump the front-runner, viewing him as a cunning media manipulator who is leveraging his celebrity this summer but unlikely to endure. But they can’t ignore the strain of scorn for the political establishment elevating newcomers like Carson and Fiorina over career politicians – a strain that likely runs far deeper than The Donald’s support.

The publication noted, “the race is still winnable for Walker because other top-tier candidates have yet to ignite. Jeb Bush, despite having the strongest organization in Iowa, isn’t a natural fit in a socially conservative state.” That appears to be right. The piece included quotes from fair-goers that ranged from Jeb’s a bit too liberal to he’s a nice fellow, but we need “new blood in the White House.”

I think it’s safe to predict that Jeb Bush will last longer than Scott Walker at this juncture. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn agreed that Walker has the resume and the base of support to do well. Walker does appeal to the Republican Party’s conservative wing and the establishment. Yet, there were some who agreed that Walker wasn’t ready for “prime time,” given some of his campaign’s early moves:

No other Republican combines a natural factional base in an early primary state with the potential for broad acceptability throughout the party. Jeb Bush will face persistent resistance from the party’s conservative wing, even if his combination of superior resources and just enough appeal could allow him to prevail in a protracted fight. The many conservatives competing with Mr. Walker in Iowa, like Ted Cruz or Mr. Huckabee, have won loyal but narrow support by embracing messages that alienate much of the party. Marco Rubio, perhaps the only candidate who appeals more broadly throughout the party than Mr. Walker, does not have a natural base of support in the party and has struggled to break through.

But a straightforward path to victory is no guarantee of victory. In August 2011, if you had asked, “Who is in the best position to win the Republican nomination?” many might have responded “Rick Perry.” On paper, he was broadly acceptable throughout the party and to its establishment, he had a strong pitch to conservative voters desperate for an alternative to Mitt Romney, and he led polls in Iowa and nationally in 2011. But he promptly blew his opportunity with a series of missteps that made him seem woefully unprepared for the presidency.

That’s seems to have happened here as well:

Early on, he “punted” on questions about evolution; he said he did not know whether President Obama was a Christian; he argued that his experience facing down protesters in Madison prepared him to defeat the Islamic State; and he quickly shifted positions on ethanol and immigration to align with the preferences of Iowa voters.

[…]

These doubts are not limited to the party’s moderates. Tom Coburn, the former senator from Oklahoma, said Mr. Walker “might not be ready for prime time.” Mike Lee, a senator from Utah, said he was “doubtful” about Mr. Walker before meeting him. Mr. Lee apparently came away impressed, but the initial expectation may be the better indicator of his reputational challenge.

You have this, plus Walker’s super PAC doling out $7 million in ad buys in Iowa in early August. This seems to have been ineffectual. Moreover, it doesn’t help when you have two lackluster debate performances. The recent CNN/Salem debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California saw Walker throw a few zingers at Donald Trump and criticize the debate questions as ones not geared towards policy, but it was more of the same.

There were some problems with policy as well. In August, the governor unveiled his health care reform white paper, which had some good points, but was a bit light on how he would pay for it (via WSJ) [emphasis mine]:

Mr. Walker said his plan is akin to a “tax cut of about a trillion dollars. That’s probably about one of the biggest tax-relief plans we’ve had, pro-growth, economic development-tax relief plans we’ve had in the past 40 years. That’s going to have a dynamic and important impact on the nation’s economy.”

The tax-credit system Mr. Walker proposed would provide a tax credit of $900 a year for those 17 years old or younger and escalate to a credit of $3,000 for people between the ages of 50 and 64. It also would increase annual limits on tax-sheltered health savings accounts, a popular program for people in high-deductible plans, and would provide a $1,000 refundable tax credit to anyone who signs up. Walker aides said it could reduce premiums by as much as 25%.

[…]

Mr. Walker called his plan “cost neutral,” but he didn’t explain how he would pay $802 billion in increased Medicare spending that would be triggered by a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office also has said repealing the health-care law would increase federal budget deficits by $137 billion over the next decade. Mr. Walker’s 6½-page proposal doesn’t address how he would pay for his plan beyond a vow to cut spending on Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance for the poor, and institute a tax on so-called Cadillac health plans.

Forbes’ Avik Roy, who served as a senior adviser to Gov. Rick Perry, also noted the meager details of how a Walker administration would pay for his health care reform package.

Yet, forget policy. As of now, Walker’s position in the GOP field is finished. He spent the better part of this month traveling on a motorcycle trying to tell voters that he still has a pulse in this contest. Is a staff shake-up needed? Is that the steroid that needs to be injected into this campaign that no longer registers at the national level? The Washington Post reported there was some chatter that Walker’s campaign manager, Rick Wiley, needs to be shown the exit; that he expanded full-time staff, which currently stands at 90, too fast–and hasn’t invested the summer fundraising haul in a way that pays off dividends. Then again, maybe it’s the messenger and not the message.

Stanley S. Hubbard, a top Walker donor, admitted that something is off with his guy:

…He likes what he is hearing from Walker and he doesn't understand why his pitch "doesn't turn people on."

"I think Walker says all the right things," he said, but "something's missing in the demeanor."

Well it seems to be all about "demeanor" since there will be no staffing shuffles.  Those who will be moved will most likely be going to Iowa. Either way, Walker needs to shape up quick, before donors start to jump ship. I know we don’t start voting until February, but when you skip the California Republican Convention, where there is some serious money, people start to get a feeling that your campaign is imploding. Oh, and you get those attending such events really mad by backing out. Also, on a separate note, not really good media attention when you owe vendors $100,000.

Maybe the whole campaign needs to end. We do have the luxury of choice. Marco Rubio would be the logical choice to ex-Walker fans to flock to–and there’s always the Carly option, though there is the fear that dozens of ICBMs with the words Hewlett-Packard on them could send her campaign into nuclear winter.

For now, it’s what the hell happened to Walker–and should he pack it in and call it a night? It sure looks that way–and that's quite the punch to the gut for someone who had up until recently been viewed as a top-tier candidate. 

*Credit for that description goes to Politico's Mike Allen