At the start of 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was being touted as the man who could beat Jeb Bush. So far, he has lived up to the hype.
Walker has successfully courted key figures in the party’s establishment, pushed himself into the lead in polls in Iowa and quashed concerns that he would be a dull, flat campaigner who couldn’t energize conservatives. Bush started the race as the favorite, but Republicans agree that Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have joined the former Florida governor in the “first tier” of contenders for the GOP nomination.
Walker has the potential to unite two of the biggest blocs of the GOP: Those who describe themselves as "very conservative" and those who are "somewhat conservative." He is unabashedly conservative on policy, signing into law provisions in Wisconsin to ban abortions after the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy, limit the collective bargaining rights of state employees and sharply cut taxes and spending. Walker has also shown himself to be a skilled politician, winning elections in 2010 and 2014 as well surviving a 2012 attempt by Democrats to recall him because of the union measure.
So can Walker win? The upcoming presidential debates are critical for the Wisconsin governor. He tends to answer questions on policy issues, particularly on foreign affairs, in tight, clipped responses with little depth. And he has reversed his views in the midst of the campaign on a host of issues, mostly notably abandoning his previous support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Few of the candidates in the 2016 GOP primary are foreign affairs experts or experienced debaters. But being in the Senate, like Rubio and several of the other candidates, forces politicians to speak in hearings and other forums in which their views are often contested and the national press is watching.
The danger for Walker is becoming the Rick Perry of 2012, a leading candidate who collapses in the debates. The Texas governor, like Walker, had dominated politics in his home state. Republicans controlled the legislature in Texas, as they do in Wisconsin, so Perry rarely was forced to articulate and defend his views. And the attention from the media, even in a huge state like Texas, does not compare to a presidential debate with 10 candidates and moderators looking to force you into a mistake.
In the debates, Walker needs both to avoid any gaffes that could create the impression he is not smart enough to be president and also demonstrate some depth of policy knowledge. He also needs to be careful with his language and tone.
Earlier this year, Walker suggested his political battles against labor unions in Wisconsin illustrated he would be a strong commander-in-chief in fighting ISIS.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” Walker said in remarks he had to backtrack from.
At another point, he refused to give a direct answer when asked if President Obama is a Christian.
Such mistakes in a debate could convince Republicans that Walker is not capable of defeating Hillary Clinton in the general election, so they would not back him in the primary.
Another big challenge for Walker is that he trying to be a candidate who can appeal to all parts of the GOP: more business-oriented Republicans who don’t really care about issues like gay marriage, social conservatives who are deeply opposed to same-sex unions and abortion rights and Tea Party conservatives who want a much smaller federal government.
The danger in trying to appeal to all of these groups is that Walker will became the favorite of none of them. Republicans who want a more moderate candidate might back Bush or Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while strong conservatives might prefer Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who are strong opponents of gay marriage, or even Donald Trump, who is more aggressively opposed to illegal immigration.
Walker faces the danger of moving too right and annoying more moderate Republicans in states like New Hampshire. But he could lose Iowa if he is insufficiently right-wing.
In 2008, Mitt Romney tried to court several different blocs of the GOP at the same time. This approach failed. Huckabee won Iowa, while John McCain effectively skipped Iowa and carried New Hampshire. Losing the first two states doomed Romney.
Walker's third big challenge in the primary is proving he is better-suited to win the general election, particularly compared to Bush and Rubio. Republicans desperately want to choose someone who can defeat Clinton.
In the view of GOP strategists, Bush and Rubio have some obvious appeal to Latino voters, a key swing bloc. (Bush speaks Spanish fluently and is married to a Mexican-American woman, while Rubio is Cuban. Both live in the Miami area.)
On the other hand, Walker has spent little time courting minority voters, who are a growing part of the electorate. He has signed a controversial voter ID law in Wisconsin, opposes citizenship for the undocumented and lacks any biographical connection to the Latino or black community.
By nominating Walker, Republicans run the risk he will lose 80% of minority voters, like Romney in 2012, and be trounced by Clinton.
Walker, who regularly speaks of his shopping at Kohl's, has suggested he has a special connection to white working-class voters in Midwestern states like Iowa and Wisconsin that Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. But such a path is a very difficult one. Walker could win Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin and still fail to get 270 electoral votes, if Democrats maintain their strength in larger states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
Bush and Rubio can present a much easier route to 270 if they can carry Florida, where both have been elected statewide. Kasich has won twice statewide in Ohio, a state a Republican desperately needs to be elected president.
What is Walker's path to victory in the primary? The governor needs to win Iowa, since he leads in polls and comes from a neighboring state. A loss there would be a huge blow to his candidacy.
But a win in Iowa will not come easy. Several of the candidates, particularly Cruz, Huckabee and Rick Santorum, are pinning their campaigns around courting the social conservatives in that state.
With a victory in Iowa, Walker will be in a strong position to be the GOP nominee. A victory over a crowded field there will give him a great deal of press attention, as it did for Barack Obama in 2008. It will solidify him as one of the top GOP candidates.
And even if Bush or Rubio won New Hampshire after Walker's Iowa win, the Wisconsin governor would be formidable against them in the rest of primaries. His record of winning in Wisconsin will appeal to blue-state Republicans in other states who want a candidate who can beat Clinton.
And in the South, in a race against Bush or Rubio, Walker could position himself as the true conservative, because of his battles with labor unions in his home state and his opposition to a pathway to citizenship on immigration.
Walker is perhaps the candidate who would please the most Republicans if he were nominated. He is not as moderate as Bush. He has executive experience, unlike Rubio. He is a social, economic and and national security conservative. He would govern from the right if elected president.
And Walker, aware of the GOP's need to reach minority voters, is already suggesting he would tap Rubio as his vice-president.
That said, nominating a white guy from Wisconsin would be a big electoral risk for Republicans. It's far from clear he would even carry his home-state, which last backed a Republican for president in 1984. The young, Hispanic Rubio would be a history-making president if elected, like Clinton. Rubio's potential to win new voters for Republicans seems higher than Walker's, and Bush, unlike Walker, is already aggressively appealing to Latinos.
Backing Walker is a bet that the Republicans can rely on an overwhelming-white coalition to win in November 2016. That approach worked in the 2014 midterms, where the party made huge gains even in Democratic areas. But an electorate that could be more than 30% people of color in 2016 would be a big challenge for Walker.