Minnesota admirers of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty undoubtedly felt a familiar twinge of political pain when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ended his presidential bid Monday. The two Republican governors were both plausible contenders when they jumped into the presidential pool — Pawlenty in 2011, Walker this year — only to founder as more charismatic competitors made bigger splashes.
If anything, Walker’s early departure from what is now a 15-candidate field is the more surprising — and more revealing about the mind-sets of the nation’s Republican voters in the run-up to the election of a new president in 2016.
Only four years ago, Walker was being hailed as a conservative hero for stripping public employee unions of collective bargaining rights in what, until then, was considered a state friendly to organized labor. His anti-union crusade, and his ability to survive a recall attempt in 2012, won him national notice and the backing of the GOP kingmaking Koch brothers. His ties to first caucus state Iowa were in his favor as well. When he entered the race this summer, he seemed positioned for a long and strong run — or so the pundits thought.
Likely Republican voters evidently disagreed. Walker was one of eight past or present state CEOs in the running this summer. All of them are trailing in the polls behind candidates who have never held elective office — mogul/celebrity Donald Trump, former corporate CEO Carly Fiorina and retired physician Ben Carson. Star power, pugnacity and outsider status have seemed to matter more than substance to their appeal. One issue — immigration — has Trumped all others in energizing the GOP base, even as it offends large segments of the wider electorate.
As a result, “a positive conservative message” has been hard to hear. That’s not only our analysis. It was Walker’s on Monday. He cast his exit as an effort to help voters see and support “a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner,” and he urged other candidates to follow his example and “help clear the field.”
Walker’s Minnesota supporters undoubtedly regret that Walker himself won’t provide that alternative. But Walker’s polarizing record in Wisconsin suggests that he would not have been seen in a universally positive light. His campaign would have been dogged by hostility from organized labor and its allies, while critics decried his tightfisted state policies and faulted Wisconsin’s economic performance on his watch.
Indeed, one reason some Minnesotans might regret Walker’s exit is that it dims the national spotlight that had been shining on this region. Observers were noting that Wisconsin’s neighbor to the west — similar in size, culture and history — has rebounded more strongly from the Great Recession and boasts both a lower unemployment rate and a healthier state balance sheet. We wouldn’t mind more of that kind of attention.