Before the new rules of money and politics brought him crashing back to earth, Scott Walker’s shooting star briefly burned brightest of all the Republicans jostling for the US presidency.
A slick hospitality suite at the party’s Lincoln dinner in Iowa last May offered the best midwest charm money can buy: cold beer, a ride on a Harley Davidson and free cheese dispensed by the grinning governor of the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
With a reputation for selling ruthless conservatism to traditionally Democratic voters, Walker was leading the primary race not just in Iowa but in national polling too, easily upstaging the awkward-looking Jeb Bush and Donald Trump’s ominous security guards.
But by the time Walker took the reluctant decision to suspend his campaign on Monday – just 71 days after its formal launch – the dream of this tough new breed of purple state Republicanism lay in tatters.
Walker’s rise and fall was as meteoric as any presidential campaign in modern political history. The Republican governor formally entered the race on 13 July to great fanfare in a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
He then embarked on a whirlwind tour of the four early primary states, culminating in Iowa where he was received like a rock star in front of crowds of hundreds.
Just over two months later, Walker was out. His campaign didn’t last long enough for him to file one federal election commission (FEC) report as a candidate.
Those close to the campaign point to a variety of factors behind its implosion – from disastrous debate appearances, to plummeting poll numbers and gaffes galore – but it is the changing role of campaign finance that raises most questions about the wider meaning of Walker’s fall from grace.
Fresh from taking on the public sector unions in Wisconsin and winning a bitter recall election, the governor was backed by some of the richest business families in the midwest.
Four donors alone – including the stockbroking owner of the Chicago Cubs, Joe Ricketts, and roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks – raised the bulk of the $20m recorded by his Super Pac, the “Unintimidated Pac”.
But campaign finance rules prevent these uncapped political action committees from spending money directly with the campaign, which recruited heavily in the mistaken hope of matching the enthusiasm of these big donors with a rush of small contributions.
“It’s a lot harder to make payroll for a staff of 90 with the FEC limit of $2600 per person, as opposed to Super Pacs where the big cheques are for a million dollars or more,” says Matt Batzel, a Wisconsin strategist who helped Walker win his recall election.
Others close to the campaign say this led to growing internal tension, as Walker’s failure to translate his popularity among billionaires into campaign contributions from ordinary voters led to a realisation that he had over-committed himself.
“[They were] hiring people who spent a lot to build out a massive operation that would not be sustainable unless financing remained amazing forever,” said former adviser Liz Mair, who wrote her obituary of the campaign in a series of tweets on Monday.
Recriminations began to fly, particularly after Walker’s almost non-existent showing in the second Republican debate last week was followed by a tough conference call with donors and a whispering campaign against the governor’s chief strategist, Rick Wiley.
“Toward the end, a lot of donors fancied themselves as campaign managers, even though that’s not their role, so there was a lot of second guessing,” says Batzel.
Walker’s four largest donors declined to respond to Guardian requests for comment and some are rumoured to be seeking the return of any funds left unspent in the Super Pac.
But to make matters worse, the political advertising that this money could have been spent on appears to have been of declining value in a 2016 primary election dominated by the media-friendly antics of maverick candidates such as Trump.
“It underscores the sense in which presidential primaries are increasingly driven by media coverage; what is known as ‘earned media’ rather than ‘paid media’,” says Chris Hennick, a Republican strategist who worked with Karl Rove in the last Bush White House.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t measure money. I am sure at some point you will have to spend it,” he says. “It’s just particularly acute this time around because the field is so large and the coverage seems to have narrowed so much to just a few candidates.”
It is a challenge facing all the Republicans competing for the whatever oxygen Trump leaves behind in the television studio, but others have chosen to play a slower game, building staff and supporters in lockstep in the hope of outlasting the fad for outsiders.
For someone who campaigned on being “unintimidated”, Walker eventually was intimidated by the long odds that faced his campaign. With still a strong political future ahead of him and more than three years remaining in his term of governor of Wisconsin, those who know him say he had no desire to wage the political equivalent of a guerrilla campaign where he crisscrossed rural Iowa from pizza parlour to pizza parlour in hope of a miracle.
“In a blue state, he won two elections and fought back a recall by successfully reaching out to Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats, without abandoning his core principles,” says Mark Obenshain, who was Walker’s campaign chairman in Virginia. “That has long been the key to winning elections in Virginia, and I believe that it is how we will elect a Republican in next year’s critical presidential election.”
Walker had mounted an expansive campaign effort and his campaign was only one of a few in the entire field to reach out to Republicans in the far-flung Pacific island of Guam.
Had he cut his cloth to deal with the new financial and polling reality and continued to run with a more modest campaign, it would no longer have been the fight of a frontrunner. Instead, he would be in the company of underdogs like Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, off the main stage of presidential stages and out of the national conversation.
Walker had dropped out of the 2006 gubernatorial primary in Wisconsin under similar circumstances and it paid off. The eventual Republican nominee, Mark Green, lost decisively in the Democratic wave that year and Walker was able to keep his powder dry and gain chits to eventually win election in 2010. He may be making a similar bet this year in hopes that 2020 or even 2024 will be a more favorable year for the 47-year-old governor.
Nonetheless, Monday’s decision still came as a shock to many of those around him, including Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Republican party of Iowa, where Walker had once been seen as a natural favourite.
Scott Walker can exit this race with head held high
Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Republican party of Iowa
Kaufmann told the Guardian that he was “in a garage in rural Iowa, listening to a very good stump speech from [Walker]” the night before the news came through. What added to Kaufmann’s surprise was that Walker had only just received the endorsement of a local state senator there as well. He described the endorsement speech from Dan Zumbach of Ryan, Iowa, as “very passionate, very strong”.
However, the top Iowa Republican believes “Scott Walker can exit this race with head held high” and despite his decision to drop out, claims the Wisconsin governor has a long-term future in the GOP. “This is suspending his campaign for 2016 but I would be stunned if this was last we’ve seen of Scott Walker in the political arena,” he said.
Others have been less impressed with what they saw of Walker’s abilities on the national and international stage, and the Wisconsin governor stumbled often on unfamiliar issues.
On foreign policy, he insisted he could take on Isis because of his experience of standing up to pro-union protesters in Wisconsin in 2011 and said that the most significant foreign policy decision of the past 50 years was when Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers strike in 1981. He even stumbled when asked about building a wall on the Canadian border, initially indicating that he favored such a policy and then taking a week to walk that statement back.
During a visit to Britain before he launched his campaign, Walker was so anxious to avoid awkward entanglements that he refused to say whether he believed in evolution, an incident that set of a chain of increasingly controversial comments on social issues.
In recent weeks, Walker’s campaign was increasingly looking like an afterthought. At a visit to a football tailgate in Iowa, a crowd of Republicans ignored him while waiting for Trump. Even some of the voters that he did interact with didn’t recognize him, calling him “Mr Rubio”.
Perhaps, the most poignant moment was when he played cornhole, a game popular at tailgates where players take turns throwing beanbags into a hole in an elevated wooden plank. The Wisconsin governor, who started as a frontrunner but has since faded in the polls before dropping out, got his first bag close to the target but each succeeding bag ended up further and further off course in what turned out to be a metaphor for his campaign.
By the time Walker came to make his retirement speech in Madison, Wisconsin, on Monday, there were fewer than a dozen supporters left in the room, all of whom looked like they were probably college students or mid-20s.
As for Walker, he seemed calm and collected. He wasn’t visibly nervous, but he wasted zero time at the podium once he was finished and quickly made his exit out of a side door. It was clear that he was not interested in taking questions.
Mary Bottari, a long-time Madison resident and editor-in-chief of the Center for Media and Democracy, was one of those outside the Edgewater Hotel where Walker made his announcement. “I’m a little surprised because he has a cadre of extremely dedicated financial backers,” she said. “For instance Diane Hendricks, and potentially the Koch brothers, who were very interested to see him and his agenda move up.”
Walker’s own call for rival mainstream candidates to drop out and unite against Trump suggested he recognised it would take a different approach to dislodge the reality TV star from his perch.
Other local observers agree that, for all its wealthy business supporters and impeccable conservative credentials, this campaign had passed the point of no return.
“When you get down so low [in the polls] it becomes impossible to get that message out in a big personality cycle full of people like Trump,” says Batzel.
He believes Walker’s decision will benefit figures like Marco Rubio, or fellow governors like Chris Christie and John Kasich, who can make the same claim to be both Washington outsiders and yet more experienced than the challenge from anti-politicians like Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.
Either way, Walker’s departure – which follows that of former Texas governor Rick Perry – is unlikely to be the last casualty of an unpredictable 2016 primary cycle where, it seems, money isn’t everything.
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