It’s almost always bad news when a candidate’s spouse calls an emergency meeting.
But that’s what happened late last week when Scott Walker’s wife, Tonette, and his campaign chairman, Mike Grebe, reached out to a small number of longtime Walker aides and summoned them to the governor’s mansion on Monday morning.
The topic was obvious: the future of Walker’s struggling presidential campaign.
Walker had just limped out of a disappointing second presidential debate. The governor had spent weeks preparing for the showdown, knowing his political life depended on it. He’d practiced giving punchier answers and making sure to use up all his allotted time.
But the reviews had been brutal. Donors were grousing, and money was drying up. It was a painful turn for Walker, who had quickly vaulted to the top of the Iowa polls, powered by a fiery January speech in Des Moines, only to drop precipitously in the summer amid Donald Trump’s rise. He had gone from frontrunner to also-ran in a matter of months.
So on Monday morning, the group of advisers – including veteran Walker hands John Hiller, Bill Eisner, Ed Goeas, and Jim Villa – huddled with Scott and Tonette Walker. The top of the agenda, according to campaign sources: polling and fundraising. And the numbers were bad.
Shortly after the meeting wrapped, Walker arrived at his decision: He was out. It was a shocking and sudden move that blindsided many of Walker’s closest allies, threw the power of super PACs into doubt, and opened opportunities for rivals to pick up patrons, staff, and supporters.
The seeds of Walker’s withdrawal had been planted five nights earlier in Simi Valley, when Walker spoke for fewer minutes than any other candidate on the debate stage. Instead of a breakout performance, the closet thing he had to a signature moment came as Carly Fiorina finished her impassioned answer on Planned Parenthood. Walker lifted his finger, as if to interject. He wasn’t called upon. He would speak only once in the next 30 minutes.
The debate performance wouldn’t stop the bleeding. It would make it worse. Rumors of layoffs, pay cuts and office closures had already been rampant. Several weeks earlier, top Walker aides had begun talking about what was once unthinkable: The idea of retrenching to Iowa. In the spin room, Walker himself wouldn’t rule out a staff shakeup. “Right now,” he said, “I’m considering how I’m going to get through the end of tonight.”
The news would be no better in the morning. Walker and his campaign manager Rick Wiley had previously scheduled a Thursday conference call for anxious top donors. It had added urgency after the debate. Contributors were revolting, and many had painted a bulls-eye on Wiley’s back amid the nosedive in the polls.
“The donors are angry. They want improvements,” one Walker contributor said in an interview after the debate and before Walker dropped out. “There’s a complete lack of confidence. He’s got to fire Wiley. He’s got to bring in someone new immediately.”
Among many Walker allies, there was grave concern about the size of the campaign’s staff – which simply couldn’t be sustained once Walker’s momentum slowed and fundraising began to taper. Walker, eager to prove to the press and donor class early on that he was a serious contender, had hired a massive staff, even bringing on a full-time photographer, a public relations firm, and a consultant to help with evangelical outreach.
The Thursday call for donors came too late to keep billionaire Stanley Hubbard, who had contributed $50,000 to Walker’s super PAC, fully in the fold. Hubbard decided that while he wasn’t quite ditching Walker, he would begin hedging his bets by donating to multiple candidates.
The next day, Hubbard would leave Walker a voicemail. He wanted to offer some tips. “What I was going to tell him is that he should get some training, some TV training. I know where to get it,” Hubbard said in an interview. He had hoped to recommend Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute but his message went unreturned.
“It’s the first time,” Hubbard said of Walker, “he hasn’t called me back.”
Saturday would bring new problems. Walker was supposed to speak at the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island before 2,000 GOP activists. Walker had cancelled this trip earlier in the week, as part of his plan to downsize his campaign’s ambitions to focus on Iowa and South Carolina, but had rebooked when offered to speak on Saturday.
Then the Walker campaign cancelled again. His campaign cited a charter company saying it couldn’t fly into the island due to weather. It was drizzling; people were doubting. Every other scheduled candidate had successfully made the trek.
The back-and-forth felt reminiscent of a candidate and campaign that had zigged-and-zagged on nearly every issue, from immigration to gay marriage to abortion to a wall on the Canadian border, over the last nine months.
“The perception of Scott Walker was that he was this candidate who stood on principle and took the slings and arrows to prove it,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “Yet his campaign was one of a candidate who was constantly capitulating on issues. Those things undermined his campaign.”
The bottom dropped out on Sunday, when a new CNN national survey showed Walker with less than 0.5%. He had been in third place for the first debate on Fox, standing next to Donald Trump. Now his polling companions were the likes of George Pataki, Jim Gilmore and Bobby Jindal. Walker went to church on Sunday, he said when he quit the campaign, and he listened as the pastor reminded him that “the Bible is full of stories about people who were called to be leaders in unusual ways.”
As the weekend closed, Walker’s donors, activists and even some staff had begun to put out feelers to rival campaigns. Even before Walker took the stage to announce his withdrawal, his co-chairman in New Hampshire jumped ship, signing on as a co-chair for Sen. Marco Rubio. Others would sign on with Sen. Ted Cruz within hours, and a former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman endorsed Bush.
Yet Walker’s decision Monday to end his campaign came as a shock to some of his biggest financial backers, who were not consulted or even advised about what was coming.
“I did not get a heads up,” said Richard Roberts, a pharmaceutical executive, who hosted Walker in his New Jersey home only three weeks ago and gave $100,000 to Walker’s super PAC in June. Walker has visited the Roberts residence three times in the last year-and-a-half.
Roberts previously gave $100,000 to fight the 2012 recall, making half his contributions after he’d received a threating email for his donation through his company.
“I felt like I’d gone to the wall for him,” Roberts told POLITICO. “Yes, I was surprised that he didn’t consider me to be within his inner circle, to give me a heads up, to trust me.”
Walker’s biggest political patrons, the Ricketts family, which has contributed $5 million to his super PAC, felt similarly blindsided, according to an adviser to the Walker campaign. Todd Ricketts, who has been among Walker’s most aggressive fundraisers, did not get a call until later Monday afternoon.
Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, was set to host a Manhattan fundraiser later this week, and had been busily organizing a never-before-reported event for Walker bundlers at Wrigley field on October 2. Even amid sinking poll numbers, turnout was expected to be high. “The Wrigley field thing was going to be awesome,” said the adviser. “This guy busted his ass for Scott Walker.”
Walker had begun the year as the rarest of Republicans – a favorite of both the grassroots base, which loved his fight against the unions, and the GOP establishment, which loved that he’d won three elections in four years in a blue state. He held the potential to bridge an ideological divide that has vexed the GOP throughout the Obama years.
He ended as the favorite of neither. “In a race increasingly defined by which lane you’re running in, at least in Iowa, he never picked one,” said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
Walker’s departure also demonstrated that a cash-rich super PAC is no substitute for a well-funded official campaign, dropping out with millions in his super PAC’s treasury, just weeks after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry did the same.
Some of his advisers urged him not to quit in the waning hours Monday. The lessons of Tim Pawlenty – who dropped out of the 2012 campaign in the summer of 2011 only to have many question if he would have challenged, if not bested, Romney if he had stayed in the race – loomed large. In some ways, Walker’s problems resembled what faced McCain in 2008 when he hired a large staff that couldn’t be supported.
But those who spoke with Walker on Monday said his decision to back out was heavily influenced by the 2006 governor’s race. In that contest, Walker walked away from the Republican primary when it became clear that he wouldn’t win. He would go on to work for the Republican nominee, crisscrossing the state and building chits. Four years later, Walker would be elected governor.
Walker, of course, always kept his own counsel.
Throughout the campaign, he couldn’t help himself from strategizing out loud, from declaring that “maybe we’re the frontrunner” back in March, to calling himself “probably the most scrutinized politician in America” in May to declaring he’d have to finish “first, second or third” in each of the first four voting states. He got so far ahead of himself that, at one point, he fanned discussions of who would be on a ticket with him, naming Sen. Marco Rubio.
Each new utterance would bring new headlines, and new questions about Walker’s candidacy, all the way through a weekend of talk about retrenching into Iowa.
Walker would brief his full team shortly before going before the cameras in Madison on Monday. “Finances just aren’t there,” Walker told his staff, according to a participant on the call. For some, this was the first confirmation from headquarters that they would soon be unemployed.
In the end, Walker wouldn’t change his tactics or his staff. Instead, he would sack his chief strategist: himself.
Ken Vogel, Katie Glueck, Kyle Cheney contributed.
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