With Scott Walker out, how does GOP field shake out in Wisconsin

With Scott Walker out of the presidential race, Wisconsin’s GOP primary April 5 might have more influence in helping select the nominee.

JOHN HART — State Journal archives

With Gov. Scott Walker out of the presidential race, Wisconsin’s 42 delegates to the Republican National Convention next July are more in play than they were just two weeks ago.

So far, the remaining 15 candidates have had virtually no presence in the state, though now their campaigns and supporters are starting to court endorsements and operatives.

“Wisconsin is now wide open for the other candidates,” Wisconsin-based Republican strategist Mark Graul said. “Who knows how this crazy train is going to end?”

Walker’s endorsement, if he makes one, could have a major influence on who wins the state in the April 5 primary, according to political observers. His campaign wouldn’t say when or whether he might decide on an endorsement, or divulge any kind of a short list, other than to reiterate the statement he made when he dropped out, encouraging “the Republican candidates to offer positive, conservative alternatives to the current front-runner,” a swipe at real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Other endorsements from top politicians could also clarify the field. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose 2008 presidential campaign also didn’t make it to the first primaries, said he heard from several campaigns after Walker dropped out. On Friday he endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Thompson said he had written checks to Walker and three other candidates — Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The former governor said he plans “be very active,” though he expects the state to splinter among multiple candidates.

“It’s going to be a very contested primary,” Thompson said.

Role of primary

Whether that means Wisconsin will play a more prominent role in selecting the next GOP nominee than in the past depends on what happens over the next six months.

There are several stages at which the field will likely narrow — after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in February, the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1 and then a spate of large states on March 8, 15 and 22.

By then, more than half of the 2,470 delegates will have been committed. But Wisconsin is the only state holding a primary on April 5, and it would come two weeks after and two weeks before other nominating contests. So if there’s still a question about the nominee, the state will take center stage.

“If it’s active it will draw everybody who’s viable into the state, which may not have been the case if Walker was in there,” said Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia who studies the primary calendar.

By April the field of 15 remaining GOP candidates will have “winnowed tremendously,” predicted UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. “If the race is still competitive at that point, all of the campaign attention will be focused on the state (and) it is likely to be viewed as an important milestone on the way to the nomination.”

The Marquette Law School Poll released last week showed real estate mogul Donald Trump leading in the state with 20 percent support, followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 16 percent and Sen. Marco Rubio at 14 percent.

Adding in second choices, Rubio led with 31 percent. Rubio also had a four-point net positive favorability rating, whereas the percent who had an unfavorable view of Trump was 36 points higher than those who had a favorable view.

In the previous Marquette poll, Walker’s support fell from 40 percent to 25 percent, but he still led the field. The latest poll found Walker’s support split among several candidates with Trump, Carson and Rubio snagging almost half of his supporters.

The state’s Republican delegates are mostly assigned in a winner-take-all method based on rules established by the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Candidates winning a plurality of votes in the state’s eight congressional districts receive three delegates per district. There are 18 at-large delegates, including five bonus delegates awarded because Republicans control the governor’s office, Legislature, a majority of House seats and one Senate seat. The candidate who wins a plurality of votes statewide controls those delegates.

The Democrats also will vote for their nominee on April 5 and any clarity in that race by then could have an impact on the Republican outcome. Wisconsin holds an open primary, so Democrats and independents can vote for a Republican. There will also be interest in an open seat for the state Supreme Court.

State endorsements

Before Walker dropped out, he had been formally endorsed by two of the state’s six Republican members of Congress — Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, and Sean Duffy, R-Weston. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, is officially remaining neutral because of his role with the RNC.

Ribble said in an interview that he won’t endorse Trump, or long shots such as former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. But he’s considering Bush, Kasich, Rubio and business executive Carly Fiorina.

Ribble said “there’s no question (Walker’s exit) creates a different dynamic.” For one thing it underscores that the field will continue to evolve and “look different in two months.”

“It gives us all a little bit of time to look at the broader field,” Ribble said. “I’ve got a whole football season to decide.”

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, who supported Walker but wasn’t asked for and didn’t announce an official endorsement, said he might endorse at some point, but hasn’t made up his mind.

“I think politician endorsements are overrated,” Grothman said. “People are skeptical of the establishment, and I’m not sure that a candidate who gets an endorsement from a politician is going to be a positive or a negative.”

Not everyone is hesitating. Within hours of Walker’s exit announcement, former state GOP chairman Richard Graber announced he’s supporting Bush.

State campaigns

Though most candidates have steered clear of Wisconsin so far, some have had active supporters.

Jason Wisneski, state coordinator for Carson’s Super PAC, has been organizing grassroots support at county fairs, debate watch parties and county GOP meetings.

The impact of those efforts began to register even before Walker exited the race. In the August Marquette Law School Poll, Carson had slightly more support than Walker in the Green Bay and Appleton areas, where Wisneski is based.

Wisneski expects the Carson campaign and others will ramp up their efforts before Wisconsin hosts the fourth GOP debate in November. The real blitz will come in the two weeks before April 5, though some campaigns could see an opportunity in Wisconsin early and start to develop a presence.

“I think it’s going to be more relevant than it has in the past,” Wisneski said. “I can see this being a close contest, especially if the polls are any indication of how this goes. This is a primary battle that could last quite a long time. I think Wisconsin is going to play a major role in that.”

Katie Hughes, spokeswoman for a SuperPAC supporting Fiorina, said the expectation is the campaign will be more of a marathon than a sprint, which “will likely place special emphasis on key states like Wisconsin.”

“There may not be many left standing by the time we get to Wisconsin but we intend to be there competing aggressively for every vote,” Hughes said.

Fiorina’s campaign has already reached out to state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, who was courting legislators in other states to support Walker’s campaign. Now Vukmir is getting calls from legislators in Texas, Ohio and Florida hoping to talk up their preferred candidate. Vukmir remains noncommittal.

“I was all in for Walker, but now I can sit back and wait until the dust settles a bit more,” she said.

Convention fight?

Thompson predicts there won’t be a definitive nominee before the convention, similar to what happened when he was a delegate to the 1976 GOP convention where President Gerald Ford narrowly edged Ronald Reagan. Thompson described the scene in Kansas City as “electrified” and “very emotional.” He said his heart was with Reagan, but his vote was committed to Ford.

“A lot of people lost friends over that convention,” Thompson said.

That was the last time the nominee wasn’t known before the convention. If the nomination appears headed for a similar outcome, Wisconsin’s 42 delegates would become that much more valuable. But Marquette Law School political science professor Charles Franklin remained skeptical that the field won’t clarify before April 5.

“We’ve certainly seen large fields with multiple plausible frontrunners,” Franklin said. “But once the voting starts with Iowa there has not been a primary field that maintains four or five candidates for very long into the process.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to provide an accurate title for Katie Hughes.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.