Scott Walker in 2015 is a lot like Barack Obama circa 2007; he’s relatively unknown and yet well-known at the same time. Obama’s speech at the DNC in 2004 propelled him to rock-star status among the Democratic faithful, while Walker’s victory over the public sector labor unions in 2011 made him a legend among conservatives. The Wisconsin Governor begins this campaign as a vessel into which voters can pour their hopes and aspirations. The question now is whether the idea of Walker can match up with the reality of Walker.
At the annual Club for Growth conference in Florida this weekend, Walker was met by a group of conservative Republicans eager for a candidate who would throw some punches. After two consecutive White House losses, this crowd wanted to see a fighter. Instead, of “Warrior Walker,” however, they were met by “Wonky Walker.” At an 8:00 a.m. breakfast speech, the Wisconsin Governor ticked through his talking points about Wisconsin’s growing economy with accountant-like delivery. He left the room to polite applause. Meanwhile, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who have been long-time Club allies and endorsees, ended their speeches to standing ovations.
The flat speech marked a less than illustrious couple of weeks for the Wisconsin Governor. Criticism over his non-answer on Rudy Giuliani’s anti-Obama comments were quickly followed by criticism for his non-answer to the “Is Obama a Christian?” question. His remarks to CPAC on Friday, in which he intimated that his success in dealing with 100,000 protestors in Madison prepared him to deal with ISIS, earned him blowback in the conservative media. Trying to get ahead of criticism that he once supported legal status for illegal immigrants, Walker went full pander on Sunday, telling Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace that “my view has changed” on the issue.
Walker’s quick rise in the polls is a double-edged sword. While it gets him in front of GOP donors and voters who wouldn’t have given him much thought, it also puts a big target on his back. And, it’s clear that he’s not yet prepared for the scrutiny. One top level Republican campaign operative not affiliated with any candidate in 2016 described Walker as a candidate who has “gotten out in front of his supply lines.”
However, there’s no evidence that these early stumbles are impacting Walker’s appeal. While he didn’t get people to their feet in Florida, he didn’t turn them off either. Moreover, it was clear from my observations at the Club confab that no candidate “won” the weekend. A hearty applause didn’t necessarily equal support for his presidential campaign. The Club donors, like so many GOPers, seemed eager to find a candidate who was without obvious baggage or disqualifying positions on key issues.
Interestingly enough, Walker gets a benefit of the doubt that Bush doesn’t get. In fact, while Walker is an empty vessel, Bush comes in as a half-full (or half-empty, depending on your perspective) vessel. Most Republicans have an opinion about the former Florida Governor (‘his last name is a problem;’ ‘he’s got a Common Core problem’; ‘he’s too moderate’), even though they know about as much about him and his overall record as they do Walker’s. Meanwhile, Bush has done a masterful job of looking like he’s campaigning while really not getting out and facing major league pitching. Bush isn’t hiding. He’s giving plenty of public speeches, even showing up at the less-than-friendly CPAC venue. Yet, unlike Walker, he’s deftly avoided the media scrum.
The other big question for Walker is if he’s effectively using his newfound “frontrunner” status for some serious fundraising. He’s got access to and interest from more donors than ever. Can his team capitalize on this? And/or are donors sold on him?
At the end of the day, Walker’s biggest asset is that he’s not offensive to any of the GOP factions. His appeal is superficial but significant. At some point, however, Walker will have to go deeper. It is then where we’ll see if his frontrunner status is for real – or just a flash in the pan.