With Chris Christie still stuck in a traffic scandal at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, the donors and Main Street Republicans who make up the bulk of the GOP center-right establishment can be forgiven for feeling a little nervous.
If Christie fades, this cohort, which boosted both Mitt Romney and John McCain to the nomination, fear that a Tea Party-fueled candidate will take over the party, leading to a drubbing at the hands of the Democrats come November 2016.
Thus hopes have turned to Jeb Bush as a possible savior, even though the Florida governor has been out of office for seven years. It’s why Paul Ryan is practically being dragged into the race, even though the Wisconsin congressman and former vice-presidential nominee seems set on staying in the House. It’s why there have even been rumbles that even Romney is considering another go, his two-time rejection by the American public notwithstanding.
So without other options, can the establishment learn to love Scott Walker?
The controversial Wisconsin governor is slated to come and hobnob with top New York donors this spring, and he has quickly become a top draw for radio and TV bookers now that Christie has gone mostly silent. And although Walker’s public persona as a cultural warrior for the Tea Party became cemented after his efforts to strip the union public sector of collective bargaining rights, for many, his appeal actually lies in the fact that he may be one of the few Republicans running who can sway independent voters.
“Look at the guy—he got elected in Milwaukee County twice, then governor, then a recall election,” said one former top Romney bundler, who added that even before the Bridge controversy there were doubts among his fellow Republican money men and women that Christie had the right temperament for the job. “He’s battle-tested.”
For the wealthy, New York metropolitan region backers of Romney and McCain, Walker is something of an off-fit. Romney is the ex- venture capitalist with the two Harvard degrees could speak their language on slopes of Deer Valley, while Walker never finished college. In fact, he made it a point of pride (and a point of campaign rhetoric) to remind people he brought brown-bagged ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and drove a Saturn with 100,000 miles on it.
But after an election in which the Republicans got so often tagged as out-of-touch, many think that a severely middle class profile like Walker’s is precisely what the party needs.
“He is a really successful and interesting guy and I think he fulfils what I think will be one of the most important qualities in ‘16 and that is going to be competence,” said Ron Kaufman, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign and one of the former Massachusetts governor’s closest aides. “In a very blue state, Scott Walker is not afraid to stick up for what he believes in.”
Republicans say they are looking closely to see how Walker does in his re-election bid this November against Mary Burke, a businesswoman running as a Democrat.
Wisconsin, they point out, while not as blue as New Jersey, votes reliably Democratic in presidential elections, and a strong showing by Walker would show that he has the same cross-over appeal that Christie seemed determined to make into his reason for running. And if Walker entered the national stage as some kind of puppet of the Koch Brothers single-mindedly determined to wipe out organized labor, he has worked since the recall to moderate his image.
In an interview last year with The Daily Beast, he scrunched up his nose when asked if he intended his fight with organized labor to make him such a lightning rod.
“I think private sector unions are fine,” he said. “I am not anti-union. I am pro-taxpayer. So what we did with public sector unions was like Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to do with public sector unions, which was to put the power in the hands of the hardworking taxpayer and the people duly elected at the state and local level.”
And although Walker is solidly pro-life and anti same-sex marriage, it is hard to get him to talk about anything other than what center-right Republicans care about most—deficits and the economy.
“There are lot of people who are interested in him,” said Tom Rath, another longtime Romney aide and a major powerbroker in the all-important first primary state of New Hampshire. “He came in and there was tremendous angst about him with the recall, and he was seen as some kind of poster boy for the Tea Party, but now I think he is getting more attention for what he has done as governor. There is a level of interest in him that is about his ability to win.”
To be clear, almost everyone contacted for this article—GOP operatives, New York-area donors, Romneyworld veterans—thought that Chris Christie’s political career was far from through.
“I am not going to write Chris Christie’s political obituary. He did very well up here,” said Rath.
Walker himself has been one of Christie’s top defenders, pushing back, for example, against lawmakers like Rand Paul who suggested that Christie was not conservative enough, telling the Daily Beast that Christie, “didn’t moderate his position [to win re-election.] He is a strong, outspoken conservative. They forget about all the videos of him going after the teacher’s unions, or the pension reform he got through.”
“I think Scott Walker has come a long way,” added John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate who backed Romney in 2012. But for now, he thinks there is plenty of time for a Christie comeback.
“The one thing about Chris Christie, regardless of what comes out of this case, he is probably one of the most honest politicians in New Jersey. You know the reputation of Jersey politics?”