Why Did a Once-Viable Presidential Candidate Abort His Mission?

Koch Brothers' pet project, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, is the latest to exit the GOP clown car. But, has this failure doomed him—or groomed him?

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Was it the bad Apprentice jokes? The crank calls from pranksters pretending to be a billionaire Koch brother? Or was it that he finally realized people just don’t really like him? Whatever it was that pushed him over the edge, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker now is out of the 2016 presidential race.

Anyone who didn’t see it coming probably wasn’t paying attention, although, to be fair, it is surprising that it happened so soon. For a Walker campaign to be successful, all of his hopes and dreams had to be pinned on the Iowa caucus, the first of the election season contests. As of last year, he was perfectly positioned to win. He was a Midwestern favorite, loved both by Evangelical leaders of the sort that dominate politics in Iowa and those “fiscal” conservatives who believe that breaking up collaborative bargaining and eliminating minimum-wage mandates will help businesses create jobs and then through that somehow benefit the working class in a way that … you know, actually paying them a living wage for their work wouldn’t. With some of the nations biggest donors behind him, he would have the resources to work a caucus system that rewards those with the most funding to get caucus-goers to sit through the tedious and often infuriating process that is electing delegates. And, hey, did I mention he was the personal favorite of the Kochs?

But then Donald Trump came along and disrupted everything. While caucuses are about grassroots strategy, they are also mostly about sheer, irrational stubbornness, and unsurprisingly Trump appears to be attracting these sorts of voters in droves. The bombastic frontrunner has been able to tap into a “common man” persona that Walker, himself a college dropout, appears unable to compete with, and the voter base’s baffling fixation with electing someone who has no political experience to the most powerful office in the nation leaves Walker out in the cold.

Walker’s path to the presidency was rapidly diminishing, even before the most recent post-debate polling revealed his support numbers at 0%. He lost his footing in New Hampshire in the spring and that primary was seen as being mostly in the hands of Florida’s former governor Jeb Bush—or at least it was until the Trump phenomena kicked in. Next in line was South Carolina, which, while also currently firmly in the hands of Trump, also earlier had favored Bush, and with its strong religious overtones could be fertile ground for “religious freedom” crusader Senator Ted Cruz. With three clear losses at the start of the cycle, there was no win on the horizon for Walker to claw his way up to eventually gain momentum and make it to the nomination.

By leaving the campaign now, Walker actually wins for not losing. Unlike the myriad other candidates sticking it out, Walker leaves undefeated simply because he never suffered a loss. His, plan, obviously, is to return in 2020 or 2024, unscathed and bright-eyed, potentially with an “I told you so” on his lips should the eventual GOP nominee fail to seal the deal.

The question now is, of course, who that nominee will be. The obvious beneficiary of his exit is Bush, with whom he traded leads in some early states a bit before the Trump juggernaut flipped everything onto its head. Walker’s supporters should flow to another “establishment” candidate, and the likely assumption is that Bush can now consolidate primary voters and caucus-goers and potentially be competitive with Trump.

Unfortunately for Bush, though, that probably won’t happen. Even if Walker did have a following to offer—and his dismal, dismal polling numbers say he probably didn’t—there may not be enough of a market for “establishment” candidates to get the former governor the nomination. After half a decade of the GOP pandering to tea-party activists, telling them that the biggest problem with government is the fact that politicians are running it, the base has finally gotten the message that the best politician is no politician at all.

The reason that Donald Trump is leading every poll is because Donald Trump is the quintessential anti-establishment candidate. Though he is nearly lock step with every policy plank in the Republican party (his stance on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights potentially being an anomaly, although his views seem to change so much it’s difficult to be sure). Since 2010, the tea party has prided itself on replacing seasoned lawmakers with inexperienced, bombastic, and often self-funded business people. Is it any wonder that Trump is their ideal?

He may be their ideal on paper, but as the actual nominee, Trump is still too much of a wildcard—and too independent of the GOP establishment—to be supported. As we get closer to the first nomination events, expect that the party will find a way to compromise and that Carly Fiorina will eventually replace Trump as the frontrunner. The tea party will get a candidate who isn’t a politician, and the Republicans will get a candidate they can control and who will push their agenda without the loose-cannon qualities of Trump.

Meanwhile, there in the background, Scott Walker will patiently wait for his chance to run again in a better, friendlier climate. And, likely as not, he’ll continue running Wisconsin into the ground as he does it.

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