Scott Walker's Iowa endorsements: Solid head start or Pawlenty redux?

Late last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rolled out his first batch of prominent Iowa supporters: four Republican state senators and two central Iowa county officials.

The support for Walker follows two recent opinion polls showing him leading the pack of likely presidential candidates among Iowa Republican caucus-goers. If the last presidential campaign is any guide, though, early legislative endorsements tell us nothing about candidate performance on Iowa caucus night.

Technically, Walker is not yet a presidential candidate, so his early Iowa endorsers are pledging their support to his Our American Revival political action committee. But as O. Kay Henderson’s story for Radio Iowa makes clear, State Senators Brad Zaun, Randy Feenstra, Dan Zumbach, and Tom Shipley are supporting Walker for president. Zaun said he’s “110 percent” behind the governor, in part because of his “executive experience.” Feenstra cited Walker’s “leadership abilities to become the next president.” Zaun, Feenstra, and Zumbach are all up for re-election in 2016, although Zaun is rumored to be considering retirement from the Iowa Senate. Shipley was just elected to the legislature for the first time last November.

Meanwhile, Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart and Marshall County Treasurer Jarret Heil “joined the Iowa leadership team” of Walker’s PAC last week. In a press release, Airhart called Walker “arguably the most accomplished sitting governor in America,” adding, “I am now proud to help him promote policies that restore power to the states and their people.” Heil praised Walker’s work as a county official.

These endorsements follow a good couple of months for Walker in Iowa. His speech to Representative Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit was well-received, helping Walker surge to a narrow lead in a poll that Selzer & Co took for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics in late January.

A Qunnipiac poll taken in mid-February found a statistically significant lead for Walker: he was the first choice of 25 percent of Iowa Republican respondents.

Voters who identify as “very conservative” make up 45 percent of the caucus participants surveyed by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University. Tea Party supporters make up 32 percent of likely caucus-goers and Walker gets 33 percent of that Tea Party vote.

There is a horse race for second place, with 13 percent for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, 11 percent each for Michigan physician Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and 10 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. No other candidate is above 5 percent and 9 percent are undecided.

Walker gets 13 percent when caucus participants name their second choice, with 11 percent for Bush and 9 percent each for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Paul.

In a combination of first and second choices, Walker tops the list with 37 percent, with 21 percent for Paul, 20 percent for Bush, 19 percent for Carson and 18 percent for Huckabee.

I have trouble believing Walker really is that far ahead of the pack in Iowa, but even if Quinnipiac’s poll is an accurate snapshot, a long road lies ahead for all the candidates. Other Republicans haven’t targeted Walker yet, so all most Iowans know about him is that he took on public employee unions and defeated Wisconsin Democrats who tried to recall him. The “right to work” legislation Walker just signed this morning will please Iowa conservatives too. Such laws have helped diminish the power of private-sector unions here and many other states.

Before the Iowa caucus campaign is over, though, Walker’s record will come under more scrutiny. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is poised to set fundraising records, to the point that his PAC is asking donors to hold off on giving more than $1 million just yet. That kind of money, not to mention outside groups supporting Bush, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, can pay for a lot of direct mail and ads shining an unflattering light on Walker–their rival for the “establishment” niche. I expect Iowa voters will hear quite a bit about the various scandals and investigations linked to Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive.

Quinnipiac’s poll suggests Walker does well among “tea party” Republicans now. I could see national far-right organizations trying to take down Walker as a way to boost Ben Carson or whoever emerges as the most promising outsider candidate.

Alternatively, Walker could fizzle in the absence of any sustained attacks by rivals. Then Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty visited Iowa frequently in early 2011, convinced ten GOP state legislators to endorse him, was the first presidential candidate to run a television commercial here, and was on his second tv spot by early July. Nevertheless, Pawlenty dropped out of the race shortly after a disappointing third-place finish at the Ames straw poll, behind Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul.

Speaking of Bachmann, she had more early endorsers in Iowa during the last caucus race than anyone but Pawlenty. By the early summer of 2011, five state senators (Zaun, Nancy Boettger, Mark Chelgren, Kent Sorenson, and Jack Whitver) had publicly backed her presidential campaign. Bachmann seemed to be gaining traction here, which helped produce those endorsements. But a bunch of state legislators can’t counteract broader political trends. Bachmann peaked the day she won the straw poll; within weeks, Texas Governor Rick Perry had overtaken her in polls.

In retrospect, given how the Republican presidential race developed during the second half of 2011, maybe Pawlenty should have stayed in, hoping that the roulette wheel would land on him after cycling through Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. The trouble was, he hadn’t raised enough money early and burned through a lot of what he did raise. A similar fate could befall Walker. Bush, Perry, and Christie all have better access to deep pockets than he does.

The bottom line: early momentum tends to attract early endorsements, but very few Iowa GOP activists will be influenced by state legislators or county officials as they decide for whom to caucus. Some “Liberty” movement conservatives supported Zaun’s Congressional campaign last year, but nothing he says now is likely to persuade those activists to back Walker rather than Senator Rand Paul.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. – Some Polk County Republicans believe Zaun is considering another run for Iowa’s third Congressional district. He was the GOP nominee in IA-03 in 2010 and gained the most votes in last June’s primary, only to lose the nomination to David Young at a district nominating convention.

I assume that taking a prominent role in Walker’s campaign indicates that Zaun won’t run for Congress again, or at least won’t kick off a campaign before the Iowa caucuses. The last thing Walker needs is for an Iowa surrogate to cross Senator Chuck Grassley, Representative David Young’s former boss and strong ally.

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  • Walker

    I hope and pray (not literally, I’m an atheist) that the Republicans don’t nominate Scott Walker.  Walker does not have a compelling story, nor does he understand diversity or the American Idol nature of our politics.

    Hillary Clinton would be able to win a general election against Walker by simply giving speeches about compassion, without making sure all groups within society get an opportunity to thrive.

    We need to discuss issues in this country, not just imply that one group is a bunch of socialists, and the other group is a bunch of racists.

    Jim Gilmore and George Pataki have a more compelling story and case because of their national security background than Scott Walker does.  Bob Erlich understands fiscal matters, disability rights far better than Scott Walker does.

    Please Republicans, for the sake of the country don’t nominate Scott Walker.  Huckabee and Santorum would be more compelling candidates as well, IMO.  

  • Walker -- a new Nixon?

    I’ll make this short. I find an eerie similarity between Walker the campaigner v. Walker the governor and the history of RMNixon. Just a feeling, I guess.