A Republican governor twice elected in a traditionally Democratic, Midwestern state. A record of achieving conservative goals and battling with his state’s liberals. Openly devout and socially conservative enough for the evangelicals in the GOP, but not so religious to make non-churchgoing Republicans uncomfortable. A regular guy persona, in part because he didn’t grow up rich like Mitt Romney or one of the Bushes.
Those are the characteristics that have some Republicans excited about the potential candidacy of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who Tuesday formed a political committee called “Our American Revival” in the latest step towards his likely presidential run.
But those attributes also described former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty when he started campaigning for president four years ago. And Pawlenty’s campaign went nowhere: he dropped out in 2011, months before the primaries started, after finishing third in an Iowa straw poll. As Walker starts his run, will be he able to turn his obvious assets into a strong presidential run? Or is he the next Tim Pawlenty?
Pawlenty, now the president of the D.C.-based Financial Services Roundtable, said in an interview that Walker has some advantages that Pawlenty himself did not four years ago.
“Because of his epic battles with the unions and other people in Wisconsin, he became a national figure with a national platform and a national fundraising base, which puts him in a stronger position than I was,” Pawlenty said.
"Each of the candidates had their month in the sun, we flamed out too early to have our own month.”
Walker, Pawlenty added, has had another advantage. Voters, particularly Republicans, will reward the management experience governors have more than in past campaigns, after some of the execution mistakes of President Obama's tenure, such as the botched roll-out of the Obamacare website.
"It doesn't mean you can be boring, but the experience and qualifications, those factors are going to be weighed more heavily this time," Pawlenty said. He added, "you do have to cross a threshold of being entertaining without being cartoonish ... And Scott Walker clearly has the ability to inspire."
Vin Weber, a former Minnesota GOP congressman who was a top adviser to Pawlenty before he dropped out of the 2012 race, acknowledges some similarities between Walker and Pawlenty's situations.
“Everybody has been talking for a long time about Chris Christie being too New Jersey,” said Weber. "There’s a Midwestern thing that sometimes doesn’t translate in the rest of the country, and Scott Walker has to worry about that.”
In some ways, Walker is being stereotyped by the political press and others, as he and Pawlenty are much different politicians.
Pawlenty was something of a national figure before his 2012 campaign, because John McCain had considered Pawlenty for vice president in 2008 before opting for Sarah Palin. But Walker’s signing of a bill in 2011 that essentially eliminated the collective bargaining rights of state employees in Wisconsin, infuriating liberals across the country, turned him into a conservative hero.
And conservatives were impressed by Walker’s political skills. The Wisconsin governor beat back a Democratic effort to recall him in 2012 and then won reelection in November despite millions of dollars spent by labor unions to defeat him.
“If you have spent any time listening to this program in the last two years, you know that I believe Scott Walker is the blueprint for the Republican Party if they are serious about beating the left. Scott Walker has shown how to do it,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program on Monday, after Walker’s speech at the “Iowa Freedom Summit”on Saturday won the governor praise from fellow Republicans.
But Walker has a similar challenge to Pawlenty: finding a core group of supporters within the GOP. In his early moves, Walker has campaigned as a kind of fusion candidate, emphasizing both his conservative credentials to the party’s right wing but also his electability to GOP moderates.
“I won the race for governor three times in the last four years,” Walker said in Iowa. “Three times, mind you, in a state that hasn’t gone Republican for president since I was in high school."
He added, “I think that sends a powerful message to Republicans in Washington and around the country --if you aren’t afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results.”
The danger of that approach, as Pawlenty found, is that you may not become the favorite of neither conservatives nor moderates. In 2012, conservatives preferred Bachmann and later Rick Santorum, while moderate Republicans opted for Romney. In this primary process, moderate Republicans may have three acceptable choices besides Walker: Romney, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Santorum, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee will appeal to conservatives.
And Marco Rubio, like Walker, is also likely to court both groups.
“It’s hard to run as the conservative candidate and maintain electability,” said Weber, who says he is leaning towards backing Jeb Bush. “We’ve seen that. You’re going to get outflanked by somebody on the right. Count on it.”
Pawlenty himself argues that his core problem was not raising enough money and then spending what he had too early. During the 2012 process, Santorum, Newt Gingrich and even Herman Cain were at times at tied in polls with Romney, and Pawlenty suggested he might have had a chance if he had remained in the race when the voting actually started.
“The ability to kind of persist was extremely valuable,” said Pawlenty. “Each of the candidates had their month in the sun, we flamed out too early to have our own month.”
“He’s going to have a lot more money,” Pawlenty said of Walker. “You have to have a Super-PAC. I didn’t know what a Super-PAC was.”