Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made good use of his time in Des Monies on Thursday night. In the span of a couple hours, he raised money for his 2014 re-election campaign at a private roundtable fundraiser that was organized by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, and then dipped his toes directly into Iowa’s presidential waters by speaking at a Polk County GOP fundraising dinner.
Some may think that speaking at a local GOP fundraising dinner is not that big of a deal, but in recent years, the Polk County GOP has surpassed the Republican Party of Iowa when it comes to pulling off high-profile, big dollar events. For instance, the Republican Party of Iowa’s recent sold out event with Senator Rand Paul had fewer attendees and likely raised far less money. The Polk County GOP sold over 800 tickets to Thursday’s dinner and raised over $100,000.
Walker’s speech wasn’t a barnburner like Sen. Rand Paul’s speech at a Republican Party of Iowa fundraiser earlier this month. There were no jabs at Hillary Clinton and no real mention of the scandals that are rocking the Obama administration. Instead, Walker offered attendees a serious speech void of clever one-liners that focused on what he believes Republican must do to be successful in future elections.
Walker’s speech focused three main points, optimism, relevance and courage. “I think we need to be more optimistic. I think we need to speak in terms that are more relevant, and I think we need to be more courageous,” Walker told the crowd. He then proceeded to provide examples of what he has accomplished in Wisconsin.
Of course Walker spoke about the recall election and the issues surrounding it, but he also spoke about entitlement reform and education. While touting Wisconsin’s school voucher program, Walker suggested it was a key factor in his ability to reach out to Hispanic voters who just want to do what’s best for their kids. Even though he didn’t whip the crowd into a frenzy, Walker’s speech on Thursday night hit all the right notes with caucus goers.
The first obstacle that Walker must overcome if he is indeed thinking about running for president in 2016 is winning re-election in Wisconsin. Walker was elected governor in 2010 by defeating his Democrat opponent Tom Barrett by a 52 percent to 46 percent margin. Barely into his first year in office, Wisconsin Democrats and public-sector unions collected enough signatures to force a recall election to be held in June of 2012. Walker withstood the challenge and once again defeated his 2010 opponent Barrett by a 53 percent to 46 percent margin.
While the effort to recall Walker is obviously something that he would have preferred to avoid, it is also what makes him a top presidential contender in 2016 should he seek the Republican nomination.
Perhaps no other potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate has been vetted as thoroughly as Walker. His 2012 recall election is also probably the closest thing to a presidential campaign that there is. It also made him a nationally known figure with a national donor base. And let’s not forget, Walker is a hero to Republican grassroots activists who in large part will select the nominee.
Besides being run through the gauntlet of a recall election, Walker also has other advantages over the potential 2016 Republican field. First and foremost, he’s a governor of swing state, not a member of congress, a body that most people loathe. As an executive of a state, Walker can effectively point to actual accomplishments while Republican Senators and Representatives will only be able to site the things that they opposed.
Another advantage for Walker that shouldn’t be overlooked is his proximity to Iowa, which would allow him to easily travel in and out of the state, as well as his cozy relationship with Branstad. As mentioned earlier, Branstad organized a fundraiser for Walker in Des Moines while he was in town on Thursday. It’s not the first time Branstad has lent a helping hand to Walker, as he also helped raise money for Walker’s recall campaign. Walker returned the favor by headlining a fundraiser for Branstad in Cedar Rapids before the 2012 general election. The two governors also traveled to China together on a trade mission last month.
It’s not a potential Branstad endorsement that is so valuable to presidential candidates, it’s the access to someone who understands the ins and outs of Iowa politics like no other. In recent elections, Branstad has generously offered his advice and counsel to the likes of Texas Governor Rick Perry in the 2012 caucuses and Mitt Romney in the general election. Sadly, neither really followed through on Branstad’s advice. Walker would be wise to heed any advice that Branstad gives him when it comes to how to campaign in Iowa.
By all accounts, Governor Walker’s 2016 debut was a good one. Regardless of how one feels about Walker’s presidential aspirations, every Republican respects him for what he has endured and overcome. On Thursday night, Walker proved himself to be a thoughtful and serious Republican leader with an eye towards the future. The 2016 race is a still a long ways away, but Walker hit the right note on Thursday night.