Scott Walker scrapped his presidential campaign more than six months ago, with more than $1 million in debt to his name but not a single delegate. But since his campaign died, Walker has quietly taken steps that keep his future presidential options very much alive.
The Wisconsin governor left a key piece of his national political infrastructure in place: Our American Revival, the tax-exempt “527” organization that housed his pre-presidential campaign operation, continues to collect funding from big-money GOP donors and fund some of Walker’s travel.
Walker has kept a lower profile since September, focusing on a jam-packed schedule of “listening tour” events across Wisconsin and looking to boost his flagging poll numbers. But Walker has simultaneously preserved his national political infrastructure and even, via campaign duties for Republican governors, opened new doors to a second act in national politics — including a possible second shot at running for president.
“His focus is within the state, in spending time talking with voters. The listening sessions he’s been doing … that is an opportunity to kind of reconnect with voters in the state,” Keith Gilkes, Walker’s chief political adviser, said in an interview. But, Gilkes says: “People still want to hear his story and what’s been enacted in Wisconsin. … OAR provides that vehicle for him to travel and talk about it more extensively. It gives him the opportunity from time to time to weigh in nationally.”
A D.C. Republican was more blunt: “The 527 … leaves all options open for what he wants to do next,” the Republican said. “Run for governor, not run, run for president in 2020 — it’s a vehicle for whatever he wants.”
With the GOP’s 2016 nominating contest still unsettled headed into Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday, Walker’s name has drifted in and out of the frenzied Republican conversation about a contested or brokered convention. The governor has said that a contested convention could end up nominating a candidate who’s not currently running for president. But there is no indication he’s angling for such a leap, especially after endorsing Ted Cruz and appearing in a TV ad for the Texan this week.
Though Walker’s super PAC shuttered soon after he left the White House race, his 527 group is so-far well-financed: OAR collected more than $1 million in November and December from funders including GOP megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, according to filings with the IRS. Few politicians, outside Walker and other GOP presidential hopefuls who worked with similar groups in 2015, have such a nationally focused organization, and the late donations gave OAR over a half-million dollars in the bank at the start of 2016, per the IRS filings.
Walker’s core political team — including his former gubernatorial campaign managers Gilkes and Stephan Thompson, longtime advisers R.J. Johnson and Joe Fadness, and pollsters Brian Tringali and B.J. Martino from the Tarrance Group — have “gotten the band back together,” in Gilkes’ words, under the umbrella of OAR and Walker’s state campaign committee. They are tackling debt left from a disappointing presidential campaign run by newcomers to Team Walker, as well as rebooting Walker’s state political operation with an early eye on reelection there in 2018.
And OAR is not the only group keeping Walker involved in national politics. Walker has also leapt into candidate recruiting and fundraising duties for the Republican Governors Association, after winning the group’s vice-chairmanship late last year, just months after ending his presidential bid.
Walker’s schedule in recent months has included not only bill signings in Green Bay and constituent meetings in Prairie du Chien, but also fundraisers and other political events from Honolulu to West Palm Beach. A Wisconsin Democrat spotted the governor at LaGuardia Airport in New York City earlier this month. And Walker was a featured speaker at RGA events in D.C. in February, where he also raised money to pay down his presidential campaign’s debt.
“He’ll go and do events for candidates along the way, too, and help them out on their individual campaigns with events and endorsements,” Gilkes said. For the first time since he’s been governor, Walker has more than two years until his next election, giving him more time to get involved with the RGA.
“He’s going to recruit some of these governor candidates, meet some of these donors, get some favors,” said a Washington Republican observer of Walker’s role at the RGA. “It definitely seems like he wants to consider running [for president] in 2020 if we don’t win the White House this time.”
Walker returned to the Beltway in March for a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he touted fellow Republican governors and sounded some familiar themes from his presidential campaign in a speech to activists.
“We need your help in the states,” Walker said. “We are depending on you at the state and the local level. That’s what Our American Revival is all about. We are trying to take America back one state, one community, one person at a time, and that’s why I need your help now more than ever.”
Walker’s events are all part of a multi-level political plan that began when he ended his presidential campaign and brought Gilkes and Thompson, who managed his campaigns for governor, back from their “firewalled” role at the presidential super PAC, where they couldn’t communicate with Walker.
“Right after the governor suspended his campaign, he basically gave me a call and said, there had been a lot of issues over at the campaign, and can you come over and start working that out,” Gilkes said. Since then, Walker’s political aides have been focused on the dual mission of paying down his presidential debt by the end of 2016 and laying the groundwork for a third Walker term in Wisconsin.
“He’s made no secret he’s looking at a third term and making another run in 2018,” Gilkes said. “That’s where we come in. Stephan and I have slowly started to amp up the state committee for that run. My focus has been working on that game plan and paying down what we have left on that debt to get that off our shoulders heading into ’17 and ’18.”
The plan faces a significant potential roadblock, though, in Walker’s poll numbers.
Walker’s failed presidential bid did what years of attacks by Democrats and labor unions couldn’t: crater his in-state support. When Marquette Law School polled Wisconsinites in September, 37 percent approved of his performance and 59 percent disapproved. And despite Walker’s statewide tours and the accompanying coverage in local media, he has been underwater ever since.
“I think Wisconsin is one of those states where presence is popularity,” said Collin Roth, the managing editor of the conservative website Right Wisconsin. “There’s no getting around it, you can just look at the trend line in the Marquette poll: As soon as he started running for president his numbers dropped. A lot of it was the perception or reality that he wasn’t in the state. … But of course he doesn’t face reelection until 2018, so I do think there’s time to fix it. He says he’s running for another term.”
“I think once he got back, he had to prove, ‘I’m here, I’m listening,’ show up at brat fries and all that,” Roth continued.
In the latest Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday, Walker showed signs of life: After months mired in the high 30s, his job approval rebounded slightly in March to 44 percent.
“His plan makes sense,” said Matt Batzel, a Wisconsin-based conservative activist who is the executive director of American Majority. “One of the good things about getting out early when he did, he ran for president for a relatively short period of time and is now focused on the state.”
Democrats contend that Walker’s presidential run permanently broke bonds between him and Wisconsin voters. “People are looking at those numbers and wondering if he’ll ever have the same popularity,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Weathersby. “I think it’s been difficult for the governor, and I think it’ll continue to be difficult.”
In the meantime, Walker’s political machine is busily preparing for the future.
“Everything we’re doing right now is gearing him up to run for reelection,” said Thompson, the campaign adviser. “We’re not just sitting back on our heels, because we know we can’t and that’s not the way we operate. That’s one of the things that’s made him so successful in three campaigns.”
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