After a month-long free fall in national and early primary state polls, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is recalibrating his presidential campaign with what supporters hope could be the antidote to GOP poll leader Donald Trump.
The strategy: Don’t engage Trump in any pitched battles, show more passion on the stump and in the debates — particularly in how he has taken on the Republican establishment — and over the next two months lay out detailed policy positions to elevate the debate above Trump’s bombast.
“(Walker is) a thoughtful guy. He doesn’t want to fight for fight’s sake,” Eric Anton, a New York real estate executive who participated in a conference call last week with Walker, told the State Journal in an interview. “As Walker said to me months ago, this is going to be a long slog.”
On the conference call, Walker faced a crush of questions from top donors about the direction of his campaign after his national poll numbers dropped from mostly double-digits between February and July to the high-single digits, placing him for the first time in the second tier of candidates.
The decline coincides with the rise of Trump and other Washington outsiders such as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. It also comes on the heels of a lackluster debate performance in which Walker stuck to his talking points, had the second-fewest minutes of speaking time and received a notable dearth of post-debate coverage.
In the crucial state of Iowa, which hosts the first nominating contest early next year, Walker has fallen behind Trump and Carson. His numbers also have declined considerably in the first two primary states of South Carolina and New Hampshire.
And in a Quinnipiac Poll released Thursday he received anemic support in Pennsylvania (5 percent), Florida (4 percent) and Ohio (2 percent), the latter two holding contests on March 15, which could be decisive if a clear front-runner doesn’t emerge after a slate of southern state primaries on March 1.
“Nobody even speaks about Scott Walker,” said Renee Plummer, a New Hampshire real estate executive who has organized luncheons with almost all of the Republican candidates in recent months. Walker was one of the first to attend in March and drew positive reviews. “I don’t think that he’s fallen,” Plummer told the State Journal. “But what has happened is there are so many other candidates that are out there, he’s sort of lost now.”
Campaign spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement that after a month in which Walker traveled the country following the announcement of his candidacy, the campaign is entering its second phase, including “grassroots and policy rollouts.”
“We’ve announced several key leadership teams in some of the early states including Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia and Alabama with many more expected in the coming weeks,” Strong said.
She noted that last week, Walker delivered his first major policy speech unveiling his plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, and held several town hall meetings, including one on health care, and participated in an education summit.
“Governor Walker’s vision and record of reform in Wisconsin is resonating with voters across the country, and we feel good about our ability to play across the board,” Strong added.
The Washington Post reported last week, based on interviews with other attendees of the Monday conference call, that Walker acknowledged shortcomings of his campaign thus far and sought to reassure his backers that he would show more passion in the next debate and appeal to Trump supporters by emphasizing how he took on his own party in Wisconsin to pass his signature collective bargaining law Act 10.
Walker reiterated that idea Tuesday in Minnesota while delivering his first policy speech, and again Thursday and Friday while campaigning in New Hampshire.
“I’m willing to stand up against anyone, including members of my own party … to get the job done,” Walker said.
On Friday, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin pushed back, saying they didn’t need to be persuaded to support Act 10.
Also last week, Walker told reporters at the Iowa State Fair that his immigration platform was similar to Trump’s, including building a border wall and ending birthright citizenship, which is included in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Walker muddied his position Friday, saying he wouldn’t take a position on the birthright issue. He also shouted down a protester during a traditional soapbox event, saying “I’m not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there.”
In his policy speech Tuesday on how he would replace the Affordable Care Act, he emphasized that his plan would repeal Obamacare on his first day in office (though doing so would require Congressional action and likely take longer than a day), replace it with health care tax credits based on age rather than income and repeal taxes totaling $1 trillion over a decade.
Anton, a member of the Walker campaign’s finance committee, said Walker plans to come out with new policy positions every couple of weeks on topics such as tax reform, economic growth and foreign policy.
“Over the next two months that’s going to be his focus,” Anton said. “I got a feeling that people are getting fed up with Trump. The donor class will get more interested in, ‘What are we going to do? What’s your policy?’”
Walker spent three days in New Hampshire last week and has stops planned in South Carolina next week. Anton said he expects Walker at the next Republican debate on Sept. 16 to speak directly to the camera and get his message across to the American people, rather than going after his opponents.
Anton disputed that Walker is tacking further right to win over Trump supporters. At a fundraising event earlier this summer, he said, Walker explained that he has always been and will remain conservative. To reassure more moderate Republicans, Walker said at the event that the next president won’t have much control over issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion because those issues have been settled by the courts.
But in public Walker has taken a more conservative line on those same issues, saying he supported a former policy from the Boy Scouts of America banning gay troop leaders, and signing a 20-week abortion ban in Wisconsin that doesn’t include exceptions for the life of a mother. During the first presidential debate, when asked about such an exception, he didn’t back down, saying “there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother.”
Challenges in Iowa
Walker also plans to travel extensively in neighboring Iowa, though Anton said the Walker campaign doesn’t expect a nominee to emerge after the early nominating contests.
Several Republican county officials said in interviews with the State Journal that Trump is benefiting from the same anti-establishment anger among a subset of Republican voters that fueled Walker’s rise in the polls earlier this year after his fiery breakout speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January. But trying to follow Trump’s act might not be the best move.
Mark Lundberg, Republican Party chairman in Sioux County, a conservative bastion in northwest Iowa, said as a financial adviser he liked what he has read about Walker’s health care proposal, but he was concerned when he heard Walker supported ending birthright citizenship.
“Trying to out-Donald Donald on certain issues could backfire,” Lundberg said.
Josh Bakker, chairman of the Lyon County Republican Party, said when he heard about Walker shouting down a protester at the state fair, his reaction was “Good move, Governor Walker.”
“I think he’s got to be more vocal and honestly look a little bit tougher,” Bakker said. “People see him as holding his own, fighting for his beliefs in Wisconsin, and when they meet him in person, he comes off as quiet and very mild-mannered. If he gets more aggressive that’s going to help him.”