Can Scott Walker Save Himself?

The Wisconsin governor’s presidential campaign is in free fall—a development that puzzles the state he has dominated.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

RACINE, Wis.—Scott Walker was in Wisconsin for one day last week, but—curiously for a governor who’s been criticized for being away from his home state—he did not show his face publicly.

I managed to catch a glimpse of him by parking outside an evening fundraiser in Racine, a lakefront community south of Milwaukee. There, I spied him for a few seconds, as he bolted from a big black Ford driven by a man in sunglasses through the doors of a bank building on Main Street, putting on his suit jacket as he walked. Campaign workers informed me that the sidewalk was private property and strongly discouraged me from approaching the donors who trickled in.

For the past four years, Walker has dominated Wisconsin. His bold agenda shattered the status quo, he shocked the left and united the right, and he couldn’t be beat. Recalled in 2012, challenged in 2014, he kept on fighting and kept on winning.

But having spent much of the year as the solid Iowa frontrunner, Walker suddenly finds his presidential campaign in free fall. Nationally, he’s dropped from first place in April to sixth today, barely ahead of Carly Fiorina. In Iowa, he has fallen to fourth, 20 points behind a surging Donald Trump. Graphs of Walker’s poll trajectory over the last year look like a hat: an upsurge, a long peak, and a steady decline.

“It’s gut check time for sure,” one prominent Republican who supports Walker told me. A string of recent gaffes has left even Walker’s closest allies frustrated and suggesting it’s time for a reset. In the past couple of weeks, he has taken three different positions on birthright citizenship; suggested he would consider building a wall on the northern border with Canada; and insisted he was not a career politician, despite having been in elected office for the last 22 years. “There’s no confusion about it—Walker knows it,” this Republican said. “And he knows a lot of it’s on him.”

As September begins and the primary campaign intensifies, Walker finds himself in an unenviable position—the candidate who has lost the most and now must scramble to get back in contention. Walker’s gaffes, opponents argue, haven’t just been the errant flubs of a frustrated candidate—they’ve been revealing of a politician who’s never bothered to learn about issues past his own doorstep. On subjects like immigration and foreign policy, it seems clear Walker is less a lifelong student of world affairs and more a kid who’s just realized he’ll flunk out if he doesn’t start cramming. For Wisconsinites accustomed to Walker’s dominance, his fall from glory nationally has been disorienting and out of character. Back home, he has always been focused, disciplined, on-message to a fault.

Reid Ribble, a Republican representative from Green Bay and close Walker friend, said Walker realizes something has to change. “He can do math,” Ribble said. Ribble has been disappointed by Walker’s haphazard rightward lurch on the immigration issue. Having once supported citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Walker this year announced his view had changed and called for lowering overall immigration levels; in response to Trump’s immigration platform, Walker said his own policies were “very similar.”

Ribble, a supporter of immigration reform, believes Walker has not made up his mind. “I think Scott is struggling deep inside with what his position is,” Ribble said. “He is not in his center yet. At some point he will figure out what he actually believes.”

I asked Ribble how Wisconsinites felt about Walker’s presidential ambitions. “People in Wisconsin, for the most part, wanted him to be governor,” he replied. “They elected him three times in four years! But we’d be proud to have him as president. I think Wisconsinites are okay with it.”

Almost nine months ago, on a chilly January day in Des Moines, Walker accomplished something almost no other candidate in this fractured 2016 field has done: He broke out of the pack.

His speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit brought the crowd to its feet over and over again. He dominated the headlines and the buzz from the event. National Review called it “dynamite.” Time observed that, “a single speech can launch a presidency.” Not yet an official candidate, having just started to test the waters of the early primary states, he suddenly rocketed to first place.

Walker’s people couldn’t quite explain it. It was just his regular speech—actually a less-polished version of the stump speech he still gives today, about how he got elected and pursued big, bold reforms and made Wisconsin a better place. If this was running for president, he must have thought, it was going to be a piece of cake!

In retrospect, Walker’s allies now say, the early success was not a good thing: “The national attention came really quick, and I don’t think the governor and his team were quite ready for that level of attention,” a Walker staffer told me. Walker got too comfortable with the title of “Iowa frontrunner” that the media conferred upon him. He thought he owned Iowa. He thought it was that easy.

At the first debate last month, Walker intentionally took a low profile. He didn’t even use all the time he was given to speak. The idea was to seem steady, mature, serious, frontrunnerish. To do no harm, and let the others tear each other apart. After the debate, he and his advisers thought he had done well.

In retrospect, it was a disaster. His supporters—the ones he thought he owned—melted away in droves, abandoning his workaday appeal for the bright lights of the Trump show. Since then, he has not been able to open his mouth without stepping all over himself. Once the beneficiary of more attention than he knew what to do with, he now finds himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But it’s not the gaffes over immigration that have gotten Walker in the most hot water back home. A couple of weeks ago, in New Hampshire, Walker sought to position himself as an outsider by claiming he had taken on his own party as governor. Republicans had captured both houses of the state legislature when Walker was elected in 2010, but “there were a lot of people in my party, particularly in the legislative branch, who said, ‘You know it’s nice to be in the majority, that means we’ve got a bigger office and more staff and nice titles, but I don’t know that we really want to do all that much more.’”

You could see what he was getting at: It was true that Walker had shaken things up in Madison, introducing a set of major changes to collective bargaining shortly after taking office. The safest thing for a politician to do, if he just wants to keep getting elected, is almost always to safeguard the status quo; Walker was not that kind of politician.

But the Republican legislators who made up Walker’s majority weren’t those kinds of politicians, either. They were part of a takeover, years in the making, of the Wisconsin Republican party by the conservative grassroots. And when the battle was joined, they didn’t rush for the exits. They stood by Walker, even when the Capitol felt like it was under siege, even when the standoff dragged on for weeks, through the death threats and the massive protests and the incredible pressure.

So when Walker seemed to throw them under the bus in New Hampshire, the comments rippled through Madison like wildfire. “That was not my recollection,” the speaker of the Assembly, Robin Vos, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Assembly majority leader, Jim Steineke, tweeted: “I was new at the time, but timid is not a description that fit our caucus.”

Compared to the conservative majorities in the legislature, it is Walker who looks timid today. It was the legislature that, over Walker’s objections, proposed making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, and banned abortions past 20 weeks with no exceptions, and partially repealed the prevailing wage. This year, the legislature balked at Walker’s budget proposal, jettisoned many of his ideas, and barely managed to pass it in time for his presidential announcement speech in July. “At the end of the day, it was a conservative budget,” State Representative John Nygren, the chairman of the Finance Committee, told me. “We made a lot of changes to what he proposed; he has a role to play, we have a role to play.”

Walker’s approval rating back home has dropped to an all-time low of 39 percent. (For those tempted to see this as an inevitable effect of leaving the state to run for president, Walker’s fellow Midwestern governor, John Kasich of Ohio, has seen his approval rating rise since becoming a presidential candidate.) Nygren defended Walker against another frequently heard accusation—that he was too busy running for president to do his job back home. “There was a lot of talk about the governor not being involved,” he said. “But he was probably in the room more this time than the previous budgets I’ve been a part of.”

Over dinner in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, Wisconsin’s leading right-wing radio host, Charlie Sykes, was grappling with his hero’s struggles. “I think a lot of it’s self-inflicted,” Sykes told me. “Which is puzzling and, obviously, frustrating for folks around here.”

Sykes, an affable, bespectacled 60-year-old, hosts three-and-a-half hours of AM radio daily. One Wisconsin Republican called him the state’s version of Rush Limbaugh; another said Walker’s rise can be directly traced to his influence. “The Wisconsin political environment today is largely a creation of political talk radio, with Sykes being number one,” this second Republican said.

These days, Sykes and his listeners are trying to figure out what went wrong. Sykes’s website, Right Wisconsin, recently featured a forum on the question, “Can Scott Walker get his mojo back?” (One answer was blunt: “Not without a major makeover.”) Speaking to me, Sykes was incredulous. How could Walker have said—first at a New Hampshire town hall, then on Meet the Press—that he would consider building a wall on the northern border? “He can’t possibly believe that!” Sykes said. “It’s so colossally stupid!”

One popular explanation for Walker’s troubles is that he lacks a guru—a Karl Rove-type figure to guide him on the national stage. Walker has always been his own chief strategist—as one observer put it to me, “Scott Walker can’t fire his campaign manager, because his campaign manager is Scott Walker.” (Rick Wiley, a former political director of the Republican National Committee, actually holds the title of campaign manager, but numerous people close to the campaign described his role as more operational than strategic.)

Now that Walker is out of his comfort zone and his instincts are clearly failing him, there’s no one to whom he can turn. Many of the consultants who guided him to three electoral victories in four years are not involved in the presidential run. Two of his former close advisers, Keith Gilkes and Stephan Thompson, are running Unintimidated PAC, the super PAC that backs Walker, and federal-election law bars them from communicating with Walker or his campaign.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t know if there is somebody there [on the current team] who can tell him ‘no,’” one longtime Walker loyalist told me. This person worries that Walker is throwing the campaign away. “What you see right now is a campaign and a candidate that are chasing ghosts,” the loyalist said. “They’re chasing things that are not there, whether it’s Trump or a different position on this or that issue.”

Ribble, the Green Bay congressman, said Walker has always had a small inner circle of friends and advisers. “If there’s a problem, it’s that the circle needs to be bigger,” he said. Echoing many Walker backers I spoke to, he urged Walker to get back to basics. “Be Scott Walker,” he said. “Be the genuine person who won three elections in Wisconsin. Be the disciplined leader you’ve been before. Go back and be that person. That’s all you need to be.”

Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, elected to four consecutive terms, told me he thought Walker’s current swoon was fixable provided he did three things: “show some emotion and spirit in the next debate,” organize on the ground in Iowa, and return to “talking about the issues that really matter.” When I asked Thompson if he was supporting Walker for president, he replied, “I support a lot of candidates. I know a lot of them. They call me and ask my advice.” Had Walker asked his advice? Thompson said he had not. “He hasn’t asked me for advice. He hasn’t asked for my endorsement,” he said.

Of course Walker could still make a comeback. This week, Unintimidated PAC will begin a $7 million Iowa television advertising campaign that’s set to go through the caucuses. On paper, he is still the candidate whose appeal best bridges the worlds of the GOP grassroots and its billionaire donors, its desire for governing experience and its lust for ideology. “The infatuation with Donald Trump will end, and people will start to look at more serious candidates again,” predicted Mark Graul, a Green Bay-based Republican consultant. Campaign sources say Walker is in it for the long haul, with the financial resources to outlast dips in the polls and flavor-of-the-month candidates.

But Wisconsinites are increasingly speculating about what will happen if Walker falls short. Most people in Madison believe that he will not seek a third term as governor, said Nygren, the state representative. “The conventional wisdom is that he’ll finish his term and then look for other opportunities,” he said. Walker, he said, has never struck people as a Thompson-type figure who wanted to stay in office for term after term. “I think he ran with certain things he wanted to accomplish,” Nygren said, “and he’s gotten most of them done.”