Scott Walker never stood a chance: Why this awkward, Koch-backed Midwesterner was outrageously overrated

The Wisconsin governor bowed out of the GOP primary on Monday. In truth, we shouldn't be surprised

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 22, 2015 3:45PM (EDT)

Scott Walker                                    (Jeff Malet,
Scott Walker (Jeff Malet,

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece here about a phenomenon I called The Great Whitebread Hope, which is an ongoing Republican establishment fantasy of electing an upper-Midwestern "reformer" in the LaFollete tradition who can bring together all the disparate factions of the party and offer up an image of respectable, mature, pragmatic leadership (and incidentally pick up some badly needed electoral votes from somewhere).

In 2008, it was former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, whom beltway political mavens had built up for years as an exciting Republican reformer with big "new ideas" (like welfare reform and school vouchers). In the wake of the Bush debacle, he was especially attractive as an "outsider" who could make the American people forget what they'd just endured. Unfortunately, like Walker, on the stump Thompson was frighteningly unprepared, even making embarrassing gaffes about Jews and Israel, and he dropped out in August of 2007. Undeterred by this embarrassment, the establishment once again anointed a Midwestern Governor as the GOP's salvation for exactly the same reasons in 2014, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who also flamed out before any votes were cast.

This year it was Scott Walker, who "suspended" his campaign yesterday after having been in precipitous free fall from front-runner to last place and facing the prospect of being booted from the main debate stage and forced to spar with Lindsey Graham at the kids' table next time out.

If you don’t count Gerald Ford, who backed into the presidency by being appointed vice president and succeeding Nixon when he resigned, the GOP has never nominated a governor and only one politician from the Midwest since Alf Landon back in 1936: Senator Bob Dole in 1996. (And neither of them were exactly resounding victories — Landon only got two electoral votes and Dole was soundly defeated by the incumbent Bill Clinton.) Eisenhower more accurately belonged to the nation, not the region where he was born and his executive experience was in saving the world from fascism so such parochial electoral concerns were not particularly relevant.

But while it's true that the modern electoral map is very daunting for the GOP, they seem peculiarly fixated on this region. Walker took the early lead in the Midwestern savior race, but for months people were also talking up Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as similarly excellent choices to lead the GOP out of the wilderness.  Back in 2014, as they all made pilgrimages to the Republican Governor's Association, Politico described them this way:

"[They are] Rust Belt success stories who can revive the party’s Reagan Democrat coalition and speak to the middle class in a way Mitt Romney could not. And Republicans looking to shed the image as the party of the 1 percent say a Midwestern state executive who’s created jobs and balanced budgets might be just what the GOP needs."

The fact that they seemed to be able to transcend the party's, shall we say, cruder side was also a big selling point. As Walker put it during his apparently impressive appearance:

"Strong leadership, combined with Midwestern nice, there’s just a certain appeal to that."

By strong leadership he meant that one should be as crackpot right-wing as one can get away with and not be Michele Bachmann. And Walker was that guy in every way. The New Republic described him this way:

"Scott Walker, the battle-hardened governor of Wisconsin, is the candidate that the factional candidates should fear. Not only does he seem poised to run—he released a book last week—but he possesses the tools and positions necessary to unite the traditional Republican coalition and marginalize its discontents."

He took his marching orders from The Club For Growth, Americans for Prosperity and anti-immigration guru Jeff Sessions. He had evangelical credentials equal to those of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. His record of union bashing was second to none.

And he certainly seemed nice, so nice in fact that he appeared to be something of a grinning simpleton at times, particularly on social media, where his tweeting of his dinner menus and constant pictures of himself riding on a Harley were ruthlessly mocked. While all the constituencies in the party who were presumed to be his greatest fans gave him plenty of chances, his gaffes and flip-flops made them doubt his sincerity and abilities.

He had been widely assumed to be the Koch brothers' choice due to their involvement in the union busting and recall campaign in Wisconsin. And they were admittedly very impressed with him until he started making embarrassing mistakes, like saying that Ronald Reagan's greatest foreign policy achievement was taking on the air traffic controllers union, and flip-flopping on immigration several times, finally landing on the opinion that even legal immigration should be ended. Not ready for prime time doesn't begin to describe it and the Kochs have known that for a while now.

Additionally, for reasons that remain somewhat elusive, the Christian right just didn't trust him. To someone who isn't a member of that club, his tiny deviations from the dogma seemed understandable, but they saw it differently. With other candidates in the race with strong conservative evangelical credentials (as well as Trump, who rightly notes that many evangelicals love him too) that constituency never materialized for him either.

And even aside from the now predictable consecration as this year's Midwestern savior, the rationale for Walker's campaign was built on the fallacy of his alleged prowess in bending the Legislature to his will and dominating at the ballot box. Apparently, managing to win in years that were national Democratic electoral bloodbaths and only being recalled once makes you a giant slayer in the Republican Party these days. And having a legislative majority that had been building an agenda and a game plan for many years before you were elected counts as a demonstration of heroic power. (Juggling numerous scandals and managing to avoid indictment is likewise considered a useful skill -- which, come to think of it, it actually is in the GOP.)

The sad fact is that Walker has been the most overrated politician in the country based largely upon the Republicans' quixotic desire to find a leader who can put a respectable face on its increasingly disreputable base -- and the media's odd willingness to not believe what their eyes were telling them: that Walker was a terrible candidate. Like Pawlenty and Thompson before him, he may have looked good on a PowerPoint presentation, but in reality he showed few signs of life on the debate stage or on the stump.

The good news for Washington's pundits and establishment Republicans is that there's still some hope for their Midwestern hero scenario to come true in 2016. There is another one in the race: Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Whether or not he can make the cut is still unknown, but if there's one thing you can say about him, it's that he's anything but dull. Unfortunately, the Republican electorate seems mesmerized by "outsider" amateurs this year so far and Kasich is the embodiment of a lifelong politician who took some time out to cash in  -- he's the fourth richest Republican running -- and then jump back in to become governor, and then president. He also has a habit of diluting his hardcore conservatism with some pragmatic deal-making from time to time, which is unlikely to be acceptable unless he adopts some Trumpish attitudes about Mexicans and Muslims to cover it.

But whatever happens this time out, for those who believe in the Great Whitebread Hope as the only salvation for a fractured party that needs someone who can convince the country it hasn't gone completely stark raving mad, there's every reason to believe that the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.

Scott Walker Suspends His Campaign: In Memoriam

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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