The stunning collapse and exit of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Monday provided a jolt to a Republican establishment staring at a presidential primary field dominated by three political novices and led by a populist billionaire.
Walker was a seemingly formidable candidate who has proven he can win in a swing state against long odds and who has successfully fought for his party's priorities there, cutting taxes and significantly weakening public sector unions. He led the GOP field nationally in March, and remained atop the pack in Iowa as recently as late June. Walker's decision to quit came just 10 days after three-term former Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out amid similar polling and financial woes.
Front-runner Donald Trump's top aide took a victory lap.
“Clearly, Mr. Trump's message continues to resonate. The people continue to listen to someone who is a non-career politician,” Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said on Bloomberg TV's With All Due Respect. “Most of the polls have indicated that people want an outsider, someone without a lot of elected experience.”
The good news for Trump and anti-establishment candidates is that Walker had collapsed to zero percent in the latest Republican poll taken by CNN. That means his departure will have little near-term impact on reshuffling the field, some strategists say.
“He doesn't really own a monolithic bloc of voters ready to swing toward another candidate,” said Kevin Madden, who worked for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign.
“It still remains to be seen how this shakes out, but it looks like it remains Trump against the other Republican candidates,” said another party strategist, Ron Bonjean. “Walker's support is likely to be divided up among his competitors and it is likely not going to give anyone in particular a significant boost.”
Will the establishment consolidate?
During his exit speech in Madison, Walker took a shot at The Donald and his unique brand of insult-driven politics, calling for the party to unite behind a candidate who can beat Trump.
“Today I believe that I am being called to lead, by helping to clear the field in this race so a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” he said. “I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same, so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current frontrunner.”
“It's an opportunity,” said John Feehery, a longtime Republican strategist and lobbyist. “It's one less body to climb over. I think this is one more step for the establishment to consolidate their resources.”
Feehery predicted that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich will be the biggest beneficiaries of Walker's exit. Even if Walker didn't have many voters to give his competitors, he had donors. “I think the money that Walker attracted—they wanted someone who's responsible and has governing experience. They weren't gonna go for a Trump or a Carly or a Carson.”
Madden said that Kasich, who is polling ahead of Bush in New Hampshire, may ultimately have the most to gain.
“When Walker was at his zenith early on, voters in places like Iowa gravitated toward him as a strong chief executive from the Midwest with a proven record. That's very similar to the type of profile that John Kasich has, so he may have an opportunity to get another look from some voters.”
His problems aside, Walker had built up a substantial network of top-flight donors, advisers and supporters. Now, it's open season. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is making a play for Iowa, bid Walker farewell by calling him a “a good man, a formidable fighter, and an effective reformer” before scooping up Louie Hunter, the governor's Georgia state co-chair. Florida Senator Marco Rubio's campaign quickly announced Monday that it had bagged Walker's campaign co-chair in New Hampshire, Cliff Hurst.
Rubio is in a strong position to rise if the top three contenders in the latest CNN poll—Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson—fade. The Floridian has a foothold in both the establishment and ideological wings of the party, and his favorable ratings among Republican voters have gone up from 44 percent in late July to 57 percent, while his unfavorable ratings have stayed flat at 16 percent. That suggests he's well-liked by Republicans who learn more about him.
A cautionary tale?
Walker's fall serves as a cautionary tale for others: Don't overestimate yourself.
“I think Walker thought of himself as a favorite but he was an underdog because nobody had heard of him,” said Feehery.
One Republican candidate who's also polling at zero percent wasn't taking Walker's suggestion to drop out.
“Well, it means we're down to 15,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. “We've got three basketball teams."
—Kathleen Miller contributed reporting.