Every chance he gets, Gov. Scott Walker flashes his Midwestern roots — from carrying a bottle of juice made from Wisconsin cranberries to his oft-repeated story of buying a $1 sweater from the Wisconsin-based Kohl’s department store. He grew up in Plainfield, Iowa, the state he has visited at least six times in as many months to remind caucus goers.
In the largest field of Republican presidential candidates in a century, Walker is selling himself as the one who can deliver key Midwestern states to the GOP column in the 2016 general election.
But a key to that strategy is his home state of Wisconsin, where public opinion is falling and even his fellow Republicans have criticized his proposed two-year state budget that put them in a monthlong impasse.
“Wisconsin is extremely important for Governor Walker because no matter who you are, you gotta carry your own state — that goes without saying,” said former Gov. Tommy Thompson who ran for president in 2008. “It’s a pride thing. It would be very embarrassing (for) a candidate not to carry his own state.”
Walker will formally announce his bid July 13 in Waukesha. But in recent months as he has laid the groundwork for a campaign, Walker has said he believes the country’s next president should be a Midwestern governor.
“I think it’s important that if a Republican is going to win the presidency, the path to win the presidency comes through the Midwest,” he said in April while visiting Iowa.
Walker cited Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio as key Midwestern states while speaking to reporters at an April event in Iowa, and added Pennsylvania, though not usually considered a part of the region.
Walker’s campaign declined to answer questions for this story.
Nathan Gonzales, editor of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, said Walker is correct, but added the path to the White House also runs through Colorado, Florida and Virginia.
The Iowa caucuses will be crucial for Walker to keep his name among the top contenders in the primary, Gonzales said.
“Walker’s resume should give him some advantages to do very well in Iowa. That’s probably his best opportunity to make a splash in the early stage,” he said.
Should he be the GOP nominee, a good caucus showing could also help Walker in the general election in Iowa, a Democratic-leaning swing state. In the last 30 years, Iowa backed a Republican in just 1984 and 2004.
Electoral map favors Democrats
Political experts said the electoral map for the general election will favor the Democratic candidate. Therefore, whoever is the Republican nominee must be successful in several key states, including Midwestern bellwether Ohio — which has sided with every winning presidential candidate since 1964.
Indiana is also a key Midwestern state for the GOP because it typically backs Republicans, and the Republican candidate will also need to win Colorado, Florida, and Virginia, Gonzales said.
In six of the last eight elections, the winner of the majority of the electoral votes in seven Midwestern states won the general election. Those states contained 91 — or 17 percent — of the 538 electoral votes in 2012.
Thompson said the most important Midwestern states for GOP candidates are, in order, Ohio, Iowa and Michigan.
Walker won’t be the only candidate banking on a strong run through the Midwest.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is expected to announce his own GOP presidential bid later this month, complicating Walker’s ability to sell himself as the candidate who can wrap up Midwestern votes and to win those states in the primaries, experts said.
“One would expect he will do well in Midwest states, assuming he won’t have a Midwestern challenger,” University of Virginia’s Center for Politics director Larry Sabato said of Walker’s chances in a primary.
But if Kasich’s candidacy isn’t viable, and Walker shows strength in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina during the primary, Walker could benefit from a “neighborhood effect” in subsequent Midwestern primaries.
Walker has used his Wisconsin home as a selling point to other Midwestern states’ voters. But his popularity at home is waning.
Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin said it’s too early to know whether spring polling on his job approval — the lowest for Walker since he was first elected governor in 2010 — would affect him in a potential 2016 general election campaign.
He said winning three Wisconsin gubernatorial elections is in Walker’s favor, but noted none of them was won in a presidential election year when about half a million more voters — typically Democrats — come to the polls.
“With his job approval falling this spring, it at least raises a caution flag about what his standing with voters is here,” said Franklin.
Sabato said Walker would easily win Wisconsin's primary, and Thompson was optimistic that, despite low polling numbers in Wisconsin, the governor would be able to carry the state.
Gonzales said Wisconsin and Iowa aren’t as likely to be tipping points if the general election is closely contested. If a Republican has a chance to win states like Wisconsin, they’re probably contending in other Democratic-leaning states, he said.
Political observers will be watching Wisconsin, he said, to see if the state edges back to being the swing state it was during the 2000 and 2004 elections, from voting Democratic in the last two elections.
Thompson said winning Wisconsin in a general election has become less important for Republican candidates.
Wisconsin voters have favored a Democratic presidential candidate each year since 1988. But in 2000 and 2004, President George W. Bush lost Wisconsin by less than a percentage point, showing a Republican can make the state competitive.
“Ohio has got to be a state that Republicans pick up or they don’t win the presidency,” Thompson said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Sabato's comments about Walker's chances in Wisconsin's primary.]