When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker visited Iowa recently to speak at a well-attended Republican dinner, only one national political reporter (NBC’s Alex Moe) showed up. That just proves you don’t need national press attention to make a strong start in the 2016 Republican presidential race.
There’s a Walker boom, or at least a boomlet, going on in the nation’s first voting state. When you hear speculation about the ’16 GOP field — Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and others — it’s rare to hear Walker’s name included in the group. But keep an eye on him; politically-savvy Republicans certainly are.
Here’s one way to test Walker’s appeal. Talk to Iowa politicos who supported Mitt Romney last time around, and then talk to politicos who supported anybody but Romney, and ask what they think about Walker. You’ll hear a lot of positive things from both groups.
“He’s the guy to beat in Iowa as it stands right now,” says David Kochel, who ran Romney’s 2012 campaign in the state. In an email exchange recently, Kochel, who is not working for any candidate at the moment, ran down the list of Walker’s strengths. The Wisconsin governor is “a full-spectrum conservative who’s comfortable with and speaks the language of Iowa social conservatives,” Kochel said. His showdown with public-sector unions won him great admiration and a substantial fundraising base among Republicans. He’s a favorite of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. And he has “real Tea Party credibility.” Put it all together, and it’s a pretty strong resume. “I think Walker’s ability to reach across coalitions could be unmatched,” Kochel said.
A similar assessment comes from an Iowan who worked hard to defeat Romney. “Gov. Walker spoke in a very conversational tone, a very Iowa tone, like an old neighbor,” said Jamie Johnson, a GOP State Central Committee member who was at the Des Moines event last week. “He connected.” And Johnson — who strongly supported Rick Santorum in last year’s race — notes that while Walker did well in Iowa’s biggest city, he will likely “connect even better in the God-and-guns counties.”
Out in those God-and-guns counties, in western Iowa, conservative radio host Sam Clovis calls Walker “a rock star.” “He gets great reviews from all who have seen him,” says Clovis.
Here is the thing that really impresses Republicans looking for a candidate: Scott Walker has done things. As part of the gubernatorial faction in the 2016 field — the list includes Christie and Jindal — Walker not only has executive experience. He has used executive authority to achieve a goal conservatives have pursued for years: to break the hold public employee unions have on government in many states. The result in Wisconsin has been millions of taxpayer dollars saved and improved schools.
And Walker did it while going through the most intense trial by fire of any politician in America in recent years. Democrats and their allies on the left threw everything they had at him. They tried to stop him in the streets, in the courts, in a recall election. He survived it all.
The senators who are potential candidates — Paul, Rubio, perhaps Ted Cruz — don’t have anywhere near that level of accomplishment.
So it was no surprise that Walker reminded voters in Des Moines that governors get things done. “Reform happens in the laboratories of democracy, which is our states,” he told the crowd. “We’ve laid a positive foundation to move Wisconsin forward, and people want to continue down that path. We can do that nationally, as well.”
Walker’s appearance drew more people, and raised more money for the GOP, than an earlier visit from Sen. Paul. But it attracted far less media coverage. So far, he’s still mostly flying under the radar.
But look for that to change. Walker is getting such good notices from Iowa insiders that outside attention will surely follow.
“Scott Walker has impressed me most,” says Craig Robinson, of the influential Iowa Republican blog. Walker’s trip to Des Moines, Robinson says, was all about laying a solid foundation for a possible candidacy.
“Other potential presidential candidates like Sen. Paul came to Iowa and whaled away on the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton,” says Robinson. “That will get a standing ovation and elicit plenty of cheers, but it really does nothing to paint a vision for where they want to take the country. Walker provided Iowans a glimpse of the type of national leader he would be.”
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.
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