How Scott Walker Lost Rush Limbaugh—and His 2016 Presidential Bid
Bad news for billionaires: Koch money only gets you so far.
In the coming days, pundits will float a host of explanations for why Scott Walker decided to blow the 2016 Republican presidential primary popsicle stand. But the journalist who probably knows Walker best—Wisconsin talk-radio host Charlie Sykes, who estimates he’s interviewed the governor hundreds of times over the years—pointed to one particular harbinger of Walker’s fate: losing Rush Limbaugh.
The demise of Walker’s presidential hopes indicates the limits big donors face in this race. Even with the support of major players in the Koch fundraising network, Walker’s campaign proved no match for the ultimate power brokers in the Republican base—especially Limbaugh.
Even with drab poll numbers, the national effort to support Walker still could have taken care of him. Recent campaign filings show the Unintimidated PAC that backed him sat on a cool $20 million when he decided to bow out. And Walker was a favorite among the Koch brothers’ network. Just last month, Politico reported that he had won an informal survey of support among major political contributors at a Koch-organized conference. And this past spring, Charles and David Koch signaled that he was their favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination.
But that didn’t cut it. Somewhere over the summer, Walker seemed to fall out of favor with Limbaugh.
“If somebody were to go back and look at transcripts of Rush Limbaugh, up until a certain point, he was all into Walker, how great Walker was,” said Sykes. “And at some point, he just dropped him and went all in for Trump.”
The bombastic conservative opiner did spend much of the early part of this year praising Walker. But as Donald Trump soared in talk-radio land—as BuzzFeed detailed last month—the governor faded to black. In June, Limbaugh lauded the governor as the “closest you can find to any Republican having a plan to deal with Obamacare.” In July, he celebrated Walker, saying he was “the one guy in the race with a conservative track record.” Two weeks later, a PR firm working for Walker’s campaign blasted out a press release with the subject line “Limbaugh: If Scott Walker’s the nominee, I’m gonna be as enthusiastic as I’ve ever been.”
But by August, something had changed. Limbaugh was still talking about Walker, all right. But the rapture was gone. Trump released an immigration overhaul proposal that foes of comprehensive immigration reform loved, and Limbaugh was enamored with it. He spent part of his August 17 show tearing into Establishment Trump critics.
“I don’t think these people have any idea just how angry, frightened, fearful a pretty big majority of the people in this country are,” he said, “that we are losing the country, and we’re losing it because of immigration, couple other things, but immigration’s the biggie.”
Limbaugh loved Trump’s plan, by the way. And his love for Walker seemed to wilt.
“Asked on Fox & Friends if he gives Trump’s plan a thumbs-up, Walker said: ‘I haven’t looked at all the details of his, but the things I’ve heard are very similar to the things I mentioned,’” Limbaugh said. “The me-toos. The me-toos are now starting. Rather than people trying to steal it, people are gonna want to get in on it.”
And that’s what happened to Walker: He went from hero to ho-hum—from a conservative conqueror to someone who couldn’t hold a candle to Trump. The governor started as the original conservative winner. He ended as an off-brand Donald. Next to the real estate mogul’s helicopters and wingtips, Walker’s Kohl’s sweaters started to look a little shabby.
Thus, his fall turned inexorable. The governor was set to hold a fundraiser in Indianapolis on Monday. Instead, he announced the end of his campaign.
Of course, Trump’s rise alone doesn’t explain Walker’s deflation. The governor had his fair share of goof-ups and gaffes. And in the weeks before he dropped out, his campaign team drew significant media scrutiny.
On top of that, his poll numbers took a nosedive that must have been embarrassing. After the CNN Republican presidential debate, a national CNN/ORC poll showed him at 0 percent. That’s not a typo. Zero.
So Walker bounced.
“While I was sitting in church yesterday, the pastor’s words reminded me that the Bible is full of stories about people who were called to be leaders in unusual ways,” he said in a press conference in Madison on Monday. “Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the race so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field.”
He also suggested other Republicans should join him in taking one for the anti-Trump team.
“I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current frontrunner,” he said. “This is fundamentally important to the future of the party and—ultimately—to the future of our country.”
When he heads back to the Badger State, Walker will face a cranky state legislature, with Republicans miffed that he gave them a budget proposal they hated and then took credit for their efforts on conservative provisions like right-to-work.
“He has really not been a significant political presence in this state since January,” said Sykes. “When he comes back here, he’s going to have to show that he wants to re-engage.”
“He’s going to have a lot of bridges to mend,” the radio host added.
And that bridge-mending will be key to Walker’s political future. This isn’t the first time Walker has dropped out of a primary; in 2006, he entered the Republican contest to be the state’s gubernatorial nominee. When it became obvious he didn’t have a shot, he bowed out gracefully and then buckled down, making connections and laying the groundwork for a second, successful bid. Repeating that success on a national scale could be dicey.
“No one in the state thinks he’s running for re-election,” said one Wisconsin Republican insider. “He’ll have to fight hard not to be regarded as a wounded lame duck.”