Six months ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was a serious contender for the White House.
He’d garnered the implicit support of the Koch brothers, two of the most important conservative donors.
And his bid was serious enough to warrant early attacks from Hillary Clinton, along with other top contenders Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
But earlier this week – only 71 days into his official bid for the presidency – Walker’s implosion was complete. He stood in a drab, windowless room. In a brief statement, he announced the end of his campaign.
“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,” Walker said. “With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately.”
But though Walker’s fall from GOP front-runner to early campaign dropout was steep and brutal, it followed a series of missteps publicly and privately that had been hampering the governor’s run for months.
‘I think I’d be pretty pissed about how he handled my money’
Walker’s public demise was rapid.
He entered the race on July 13, about one month after real-estate magnate Donald Trump. And as Trump rose in the polls, Walker began to see his support deteriorate in Iowa – a state neighboring his home state of Wisconsin that was long expected to be central to his path to the nomination. Leading into the first Republican debate in August, Walker saw Trump begin to eat at his base.
Walker’s dramatic decline was exacerbated by a widely panned performance in that early August debate. Many members of Walker’s own team privately vented their frustrations to the press with his failure to stand out onstage – while establishment rivals like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) made headlines for their strong responses to questions.
Behind the scenes, tension began to build. Money started to dry up.
Campaign staff knew that Walker needed to perform well in the second debate if he was going to be able to survive – donors and supporters were getting antsy. As The Washington Post reported, the governor’s fundraising had hit a wall – Walker failed to meet his fundraising goals by several hundred-thousand dollars.
This was a problem – because the governor had hired an ambitiously large campaign staff.
- Thomson Reuters
A former Walker aide told Business Insider that the governor surrounded himself with staffers with whom he was not close – a problem that multiple people close to the campaign said resulted in few checks on the advice that he was receiving.
People inside the campaign said this became particularly troublesome during the lead-up to the second debate, when the political aides attempted to micromanage much of Walker’s preparations. Policy aides, one person close to the campaign said, were largely shut out of the preparation.
“There didn’t seem to be longtime Walker loyalists in the inner circle,” a source close to the campaign told Business Insider. “Especially later in the campaign, the inner circle, people in control of the campaign seemed to be a small group of people that had not been with the governor in the past.”
“At the end of the campaign you had a small group of paid political advisors, especially in the debate prep for the second debate. I’m not sure how helpful that is to a candidate when your inner circle becomes relatively small, and you don’t have a sounding board, or you don’t have someone who has known your past campaigns and seeing how you work as a candidate,” the source continued.
Walker also ran into another debate problem: He wasn’t eager to engage in contentious disputes with other Republican candidates.
“I think that he was very reticent to get into personal attacks against his competitors,” Robert O’Brien, one of Walker’s former foreign-policy advisors, told Business Insider. “I think he felt it was a strong Republican field. He had respect for folks, and it’s not his style to engage in the more flamboyant conduct that maybe some of the other candidates engaged in.”
- REUTERS/David Becker
But much of the criticism of the campaign staff has focused on former campaign manager Rick Wiley.
Campaign insiders and pundits noted that Wiley – who’d previously worked as the political director for the Republican National Committee but hadn’t held a high-level position in an official presidential campaign – had made controversial decisions that put the campaign in jeopardy.
Some pointed at his failure to curb the campaign’s zealous overspending, which left Walker with $700,000 in campaign debt.
“I don’t think that people in Wisconsin are particularly pleased with how he handled the job,” said Republican strategist and former Walker aide Liz Mair, who rattled off a list of reasons earlier in the week on Twitter of Walker’s struggles as a candidate.
“On a human level, I have a certain amount of sympathy,” Mair told Business Insider of Wiley. “But if I was a donor, I would have basically have no sympathy. … I think I’d be pretty pissed about how he handled my money.”
In an extended, on-the-record Politico interview – the candidness of which surprised many political observers – Wiley placed the onus on the media for panning Walker’s performance in the first debate.
But other campaigns were aware of the fact that fundraising in a large field would be difficult, and they seemed to understand the consequences of what could happen if they overspent. Some veterans pointed out that Tim Pawlenty made similar mistakes in the 2012 campaign and was forced to drop out after many of his donors defected to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).
“People drop out of campaigns because they run out of money,” Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan said at a Google event this week. “That’s why we run such a lean campaign.”
Added Mair: “For him to sort of blame it on a poor debate performance or the media is not very plausible.”
Wiley was also slowly becoming a story himself. Just before Walker decided to drop out of the race, a number of outlets circulated reports that he was on the chopping block. Politico reported that just before Walker decided to drop out of the race, donors were urging him to fire Wiley and shake up his campaign staff.
But regardless of campaign-staff problems, Walker wasn’t helped by his own demeanor on the trail. He stepped into several high-profile gaffes that critics and some analysts say showed his shakiness on policy issues and his naïveté as a governor.
Walker struggled to answer questions about whether he supported birthright citizenship, an issue on which he took three different positions in a single week, and the renewable-fuel standard, an ethanol subsidy that is a significant campaign issue in Iowa. He was also criticized for refusing to answer if he would accept more Syrian refugees as president, after saying that he didn’t answer “hypothetical” questions.
“Clearly he had a hard time answering particular questions – whether you’re talking about things germane to foreign policy and national security, immigration. And frankly, he first got himself intro trouble on the renewable-fuel standards. On a lot of those things he just wasn’t sufficiently well versed,” Mair said.
O’Brien, who advised Walker on foreign policy, disputed the claim. He said Walker was well versed in numerous national-security and defense issues, and his detailed foreign-policy credentials simply did not get picked up by the press.
“There were stories about purported mistakes on foreign policy. I saw just the opposite – I saw the governor’s foreign-policy statements driving the debate,” O’Brien said.
- REUTERS/Brian Snyder
‘He may well be in a position to run again’
Other campaigns were quick to try and scoop up the donors and infrastructure left behind by the Walker campaign, though Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) seems best positioned to capitalize on Walker’s implosion.
The same day that Walker announced his decision to drop out, the governor’s cochair in New Hampshire, Cliff Hurst, announced that he’d pledged to support Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida). Rubio’s team also made a play to scoop up former Nevada Gov. Bob List, Walker’s campaign chair in Nevada, a key early-voting state.
People close to the campaign say that some of the campaign’s on-the-ground staffers are eyeing a jump to Rubio’s campaign, while some former staffers have said that they are interested in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as well. Both campaigns have been making overtures to former operatives.
But though Walker has already publicly touted refocusing on his governorship, some of the people close to him see his decision to leave the race now as a smart political move if he wants to run for president again in the future.
Walker comes out of the race relatively unscathed. There were no missteps in the vain of Perry, whose “oops” 2012 debate moment carried well into the 2016 campaign before he became the first candidate to drop out. Walker leaves with $700,000 of campaign debt, a relatively small sum compared to massive multimillion-dollar debts amassed by other former front-runners.
And, unlike some of his Republican opponents, Walker is still on the relatively young side of his political career – the governor is only 47, and he doesn’t face reelection for another three years.
Said Mair: “He may well be in a position to run again, and if he does, he’ll do a lot better.”