Wisconsin governor, once a frontrunner, encourages 15 remaining candidates for presidential bid to ‘clear the field’ in search of Donald Trump alternative.
In a shock announcement that called for a “positive, conservative alternative” to Donald Trump, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker announced on Monday that he was suspending his presidential campaign – once a leading bid for Republicans to recapture the White House.
At a news conference in Madison on Monday, less than one week after a limp debate performance failed to revive interest in his candidacy, Walker essentially called on his fellow Republicans to gang up on the real-estate mogul to “clear the field”, which has now shrunk to 15.
“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,” Walker said. “With this in mind, I am suspending my campaign immediately.”
Walker encouraged other candidates to do the same, “so that voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current frontrunner”.
The governor said he admired former President Ronald Reagan “because of his eternal optimism” but “sadly, the debate taking place in the Republican party today, is not focused on that optimistic view of America. Instead, it is focused on personal attacks.
“We need to get back to the basics of our party,” he said.
With four months still to go until the Iowa caucuses, Walker had been struggling to overcome funding shortages and a seeming inability to make a mark in a large Republican field.
A CNN/ORC poll released this week following the second Republican debate showed Walker failing to register with even 1% of the vote, instead scoring an asterisk.
Walker cancelled multiple appearances after the debate, adding to the notion that his campaign was on a kind of deathwatch.
The staunchly conservative governor, who survived a recall election in 2012, sat atop the Iowa polls for six months in the long-haul 2016 campaign – until Trump overtook him in August.
The plummet from top to bottom and now out of the nominating contest represents an astounding fall for a candidate who had once been touted as the great conservative hope for retaking the White House – an establishment rightwinger with generous backers and an unflinchingly conservative record.
It also showed the staying power of non-career politicians like Trump as well as the surging former technology executive Carly Fiorina and the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who have stolen headlines and turned voters’ heads in recent weeks.
“There are 20 some-odd people running for president – two will be the nominee, and one will win,” said Stuart Stevens, who served as the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012. “It doesn’t mean that the other 19 or 20 who didn’t make it are failures or ran bad campaigns. It just means they lost.”
Boosted prospects for establishment candidates
Walker departed the race with a show of goodwill from his rivals. “I got to know @ScottWalker well,” Trump tweeted. “[H]e’s a very nice person and has a great future.”
Walker is the second major Republican candidate to withdraw from the Republican field. Former Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out 10 days ago after facing significant fundraising woes after he failed to qualify for the party’s first debate.
The resignation immediately sent shockwaves through the Republican race for the White House, boosting the prospects of other establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich. The trio praised Walker on Monday.
“Scott Walker is a good man who has a proven record of fighting for conservative reforms,” Bush tweeted. “I know he’ll continue to do that as Governor.”
“Republicans are lucky to have Scott on our team, and I wish the best to him and his family,” tweeted Rubio.
“Make no mistake, a strong leader like @ScottWalker has a bright future & is a model for other governors,” tweeted Kasich. “Good luck, Scott! -John”
Big money, big swings – and misses
As a Republican governor who was thrice elected in a state that reliably votes Democratic in presidential races, Walker was considered that rare candidate who could both toe the conservative line and win.
But some donors and Republican insiders had recently expressed their discontent with Walker’s campaign manager, Rick Wiley, raising concerns about the veteran Republican operative’s decision-making.
Super-donors such as David Koch, who was quoted in April as saying that Walker “should be” the Republican nominee, had been thought to be positioned to fuel a major national effort on behalf of the candidate.
Instead, Walker failed to gain a national profile, overshadowed by the antics of Trump, the much sharper debate performances of rivals such as Fiorina, and the emergence of equally credible conservative standard bearers such as Carson and Senator Ted Cruz.
Most famous for stripping public-sector unions in Wisconsin of collective bargaining rights in a fierce showdown that culminated in the recall election, Walker had premised his campaign on his willingness to fight on behalf of conservative causes.
When Walker announced his presidential bid, Richard Trumka, head of the powerful AFL-CIO union, issued a statement that “Scott Walker is a national disgrace”.
Trumka amended that statement on Monday: “Scott Walker is still a disgrace,” Trumka said, “just no longer national.”
Throughout his brief campaign, however, Walker threw increasingly wild swings of policy and pronouncement, as his poll numbers continued to fall. After Trump made waves for calling for an end to birthright citizenship, Walker echoed the call, and then reversed himself, only to reverse himself again.
Last month, he was caught on NBC’s Meet the Press saying that building a border wall with a Canada was “a legitimate issue for us to look at”.
Earlier this month, Walker promised to destroy the political activities of federal employee unions by blocking their political funding.
In the debate last week, Walker was relentlessly on-message, faithful to a reputation developed over years in the public eye. But when he tried for flair, as with a one-liner about the president and the Iranian nuclear deal, Walker elicited crickets instead of cheers.
“I’d love to play cards with this guy because Barack Obama folds on everything with Iran,” Walker said.
A fade in middle America
One early sign of trouble for Walker arrived in March, when he swiftly hired and then fired a digital strategist, Liz Mair.
Walker’s campaign was also greatly damaged by the end of the Iowa straw poll.
The contest, which traditionally served to winnow the Republican field, rewarded candidates with deep coffers and a strong ground game in Iowa, both of which Walker possessed.
The end of that traditional political institution in the state led to an increasing focus on debate performances – a platform where the Wisconsin governor failed to excel. Instead of having to out-organize Trump on the ground in Iowa, he was forced to beat him with one-liners on television.
The news that Walker had dropped out after just 70 days came as a surprise to Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, who said he was only recently “in a garage in rural Iowa, listening to a very good stump speech”.
“This is suspending his campaign for 2016,” Kaufmann told the Guardian, “but I would be stunned if this was the last we’ve seen of Scott Walker in the political arena.”
Mair, the strategist, came under a sustained attack for her past criticism of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus process as well as for holding liberal views on same-sex marriage and immigration reform, on which Walker was also accused of flip-flopping.
A number of prominent conservative pundits immediately lambasted Walker for letting go of Mair. His campaign was increasingly perceived as being prone to giving in to political pressure.
On Monday he caved to the realities of a faded campaign. Walker’s term as governor runs through 2018.
Stevens, the former Romney aide who was sympathetic to Walker, said “it gets harder every cycle” with more and more candidates in the field.
“I don’t think until you run for president you have any grasp of how difficult it is on every level,” he said. “If it doesn’t feel right and you don’t think its working, it’s better to realize that early on.”
While Walker’s brief withdrawal statement was remarkable for his call to gang up on the frontrunner, Trump, it also revealed how pervasive the mogul’s influence has been on the Republican competition.
Midway through his news conference, Walker borrowed Trump’s campaign slogan. Only by returning to the core values of the Republican party, Walker said, can leaders and voters “make America great again”.
The phrase – already an echo of a Reagan catchphrase – reverberated outside the Madison hotel where Walker made his brief remarks, without taking questions, to a room packed full of reporters and a smattering of supporters.
Colin Komisar, 22, a senior in business at the University of Wisconsin told the Guardian that while he was disappointed by Walker’s decision, he agreed with the candidate’s final wish.
“I think he’s doing what’s right,” Komisar said of the governor. “I agree with his last message – that we need to find the right leader to make America great again.”
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