Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has begun a serious campaign strategy that includes attending near daily policy briefings and extensive fundraising to achieve financial and political success.
It is a gamble at once audacious and born of necessity: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a likely Republican candidate for president, has put campaign plans in motion that cede early momentum to his chief rival, Jeb Bush, in favor of beating Bush and other opponents with a long-game strategy designed to achieve financial and political success next winter.
The strategy, described in interviews with advisers and donors to Walker, is an acknowledgment that despite leading in some early polls and earning praise from party kingmakers, Walker faces serious obstacles — money, readiness, stature — to becoming his party’s standard-bearer.
Advisers said that Walker, conceding that he has no hope of raising more than Bush this spring and summer, is devoting considerable time instead to addressing a weakness that could derail him with a single gaffe no matter how much some donors love him: his lack of depth on issues facing a president, especially national security.
He is attending near daily policy briefings and crafting Wisconsin’s next state budget, while his team is quietly recruiting volunteer fundraisers, known as bundlers. They now number about 50 in 30 states — a shadow corps ready to compete with Bush as soon as Walker officially announces his candidacy, which will likely be in June.
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At the same time, Walker — who enthusiastically enjoys fundraising, his advisers say — is personally courting megadonors like Todd Ricketts, who will back Walker if he runs, and David and Charles Koch, the conservative billionaires, according to the advisers and donors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain their access to confidential campaign planning.
Several top-tier Republican donors joined Walker for a dinner last week at the Ricketts apartment in Time Warner Center in Manhattan, including David Koch; Ricketts and his father, Joe; the investor Roger Hertog; and the supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis.
In emphasizing their long-range strategy, Walker’s advisers are clearly seeking to lower expectations ahead of the first reports of fundraising totals for most candidates and their “super PACs,” which will be made public in mid-July.
And they also want to minimize expectations at this stage for Walker as a head-to-head competitor against Bush, who has greater ease and confidence in talking about policy than Walker.
Advisers to Walker do not see any choice: Bush is raising money prodigiously, telling donors at a private gathering in Miami last weekend that his political organization was set to break political-fundraising records. Walker believes his best shot is to peak as a well-prepared, solidly financed candidate as Iowa, New Hampshire and other states start voting in February and March.
“It’s clear Bush has the most bundlers today,” said Jonathan Burkan, a New York financial adviser and fundraiser for Walker. “But it’s only April. And Walker has enough of them to do what he needs to do to win the nomination.”
Walker’s planning reflects how thoroughly the rise of super PACs has upended presidential politics. Instead of formally joining the field and building a large network of medium-size donors, Walker and other likely candidates are delaying formal announcements and using the early months to court small circles of wealthy patrons who can write six- and seven-figure checks to outside groups supporting their future campaigns.
The Walker team’s top goal is to have enough funds to survive early rounds of anticipated attack ads from the pro-Bush super PAC. Bush’s political organization is expected to raise as much as $100 million during the first half of 2015, while Walker’s allies believe they can bring in at least $25 million by the end of June.
Of that total, the Walker team has already raised $5 million for a political committee, Our American Revival, that houses Walker’s senior campaign-staff-in-waiting, advisers say.
Many of the donors Walker is courting backed him in his 2012 recall battle and 2014 re-election campaign in Wisconsin, races in which he became a hero to conservatives for his successful fights against labor unions.
The governor’s bet is that Bush, who has spent most of this year courting donors, will fail to connect with grass-roots conservatives, and that his executive experience in Wisconsin will contrast favorably against the three senators in the race: Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
These are big assumptions and risks — Bush and Rubio have their own advantages — but Walker is confident enough that he has taken to telling people that he is not only the first choice of his own supporters, but the second choice of most other candidates’ supporters.
“It’s a great thing when you have a big field that eventually will not be as big,” said Chart Westcott, a Dallas businessman and Walker supporter. “There’s a lot of love in Texas for different candidates, but Gov. Walker has a unique ability to unite the party — evangelicals and libertarians, the establishment and the tea party. That’s the appeal he’s used to make inroads in Texas.”