When Scott Walker and his wife convened a meeting on Monday morning to assess the finances of his campaign, he invited the political advisers who’d known him the longest. At 74, Michael Grebe has been a presence in Wisconsin politics for over three decades, serving as a mentor and guide to Walker since his emergence on the political scene. John Hiller, a Wisconsin real-estate broker, served as treasurer for Walker’s first bid for state assembly, a position he ran for, unsuccessfully, the year after he dropped out of college. Bill Eisner had done media for Walker when he ran for county executive, and then for his gubernatorial races. Ed Goeas has served as the governor’s pollster for years.
New campaign staffers, including even campaign manager Rick Wiley, were conspicuously absent.
Earlier in the day on Monday, Bloomberg’s John McCormick had published an interview with the governor. Walker told McCormick he was planning to spend at least ten days a month in Iowa, the state on which he’d been hanging his presidential hopes since he rocketed to the top of the polls there in January. In the meeting with his confidants, however, he discovered not that his campaign would have to downsize severely and retrench to Iowa, but that it was already in debt. The millions he raised had been spent in two months.
The reason the money had disappeared, many say, is that the campaign treated the first two months of a long campaign like the closing months of an election. Walker’s organization, with Wiley at the helm, had bloated to 90 people. The Washington Post reporter assigned to follow the governor on the campaign trail marveled at campaign events that were, in her words, “elaborately staged,” even in small-town Iowa. There was a personal photographer, a public-relations firm, and an entourage of aides and staffers that seemed to follow the governor everywhere he went.
“You could tell that there was just no way to maintain them,” says the same campaign staffer. Nonetheless, imposing cost and spending controls quickly proved difficult. “The financial problems caught up to them and they had to make a decision, either go into debt and continue on, or take the high road and wrap it up,” says one Walker loyalist. The alternative was going into debt and outsourcing many of a campaign’s traditional functions to a Super PAC; the one supporting Walker was on track to raise $40 million. But, says the Walker loyalist, “It’s long odds to win the nomination if everything goes right, but it’s even longer if you have to turn everything over to a super PAC.”
“You should not make financial commitments based on needing future fundraising to sustain it — it’s a very dangerous game.”
Some have compared Walker’s situation with that of Tim Pawlenty in 2012, who received rave reviews early in the race only to see his money dry up after a couple of lackluster debate performances, and to John McCain’s experience in 2008, when he retrenched to New Hampshire, crisscrossing the state with a skeletal staff and, in the words of his own campaign, “living off the land.”
One ex-Pawlenty staffer says he learned a hard lesson from his experience four years ago: “You should not make financial commitments based on needing future fundraising to sustain it — it’s a very dangerous game.”
That’s what the Walker campaign did. “They hired lots of people,” says the former Pawlenty staffer, “particularly in Iowa, because they suspected that fundraising would be very good. You should only make those commitments when you’ve got the money in the bank to do it.”The situation left many in Madison — even those who were expecting the campaign to downsize and staffers to take pay cuts to keep the campaign alive — deflated. “I love the governor and I think it’s really a dark day, not just for me, I’ll be fine, but for the party, that people like him are not in the race,” says a Walker staffer.
Nonetheless, those who know the governor say he’s been down and out before. He dropped out of the 2006 governor’s race in the primary and came back to win four years later. He “emerged better and stronger because of it,” says the Walker loyalist. He remains, of course, a governor with a record of accomplishment whose favorability ratings are among the highest of any Republican in the country.
Says the Walker pal: “He’s one of the most accomplished national conservative leaders, and he’s going to have a role to play in this race.”
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.