Last April, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker used a speech in Iowa to describe a central political rationale for his now-defunct candidacy.
“The path to the presidency comes through the Midwest,” Walker said, at a time when he was still a hot prospect in the emerging Republican presidential field.
It’s also where the path ended for Walker, who spent his final hours on the campaign trail in Iowa last weekend, and pulled the plug a day later in Madison.
Like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Walker learned that the political potential offered by a Midwestern governor is not enough to win over the Republican base. Both Walker and Pawlenty banked on an early boost in neighboring Iowa and its first-in-the-nation caucus only to underperform in polls there and drop out months ahead of the actual caucus.
“For both those candidates, it wasn’t that Republican voters in Iowa and elsewhere listened to their messages and rejected it,” said William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “It was that their message never seemed to take hold at all.”
Howell is correct: the Upper Midwest has been especially tough territory for the GOP in recent presidential cycles, even as Republican control has grown in many statehouses and congressional delegations in that part of the country.
Walker, if anything, had a more compelling case for himself than did Pawlenty. The Wisconsinite’s first term produced myriad conservative policy victories, most notably curbs on collective bargaining that labeled Walker as unafraid to take on organized labor. Unlike Walker, Pawlenty never enjoyed full GOP control of the Legislature, which left him at the end of his two terms with fewer concrete accomplishments to tout to conservatives.
Walker and Pawlenty did share a certain sense of reticence on the presidential stump that could be described as Midwestern.
At several stops last weekend in Iowa, Walker cut a modest presence. His speeches were more checklist-style than call to action. A number of Republican voters at the stops said in interviews that, while they liked Walker, he was not their first choice.
“I could see him as a decent choice for vice president,” said Bob Simnacher, a retiree who came to the Pizza Ranch in Vinton to see Walker speak last Sunday.
Both Walker and Pawlenty found themselves overshadowed by more colorful characters and mocked in the national media for perceived timidity during national debates.
Broadcast mogul Stanley Hubbard, a major donor to Walker, complained to the New York Times that Walker came off poorly on TV.
Walker has more than three years left in his current term. Howell said he’d be watching to see how a high-profile defeat on the national stage, along with his recent shift to the right on some issues, would affect Walker’s standing in Wisconsin.
“He certainly doesn’t look like this all-powerful figure that he did even at the beginning of this year,” Howell said.