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.