The Beltway is abuzz over Scott Walker.
The Wisconsin governor is the talk of Washington Republicans following his much-heralded speech in Iowa last weekend during the state’s first 2016 candidate cattle call.
Walker’s strong showing in the Hawkeye State is reverberating back in D.C., where donors, kingmakers and lawmakers in both houses of Congress are talking about him as a top-tier candidate in the crowded GOP field.
The governor has been making moves toward a White House run, hiring some top GOP staffers and launching a new fundraising organization on Tuesday. He’ll be in Washington on Friday to deliver a high-profile speech to a leading conservative organization, his first public speech in D.C. since his 2014 reelection win.
Walker has long drawn praise from disparate parts of his party, though questions have lingered about his charisma.
Hard-line conservatives love his high-profile battles with Wisconsin’s unions and successful push for legislation on a number of their priorities, including lower taxes, tightened restrictions on abortions and loosened ones on guns.
“He seems like a great guy, and he gave a tremendous speech,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a leading Tea Party conservative who also spoke at the Iowa confab.
Establishment-leaning Republicans love that he’s shown how to govern and win three elections in four years in a state that usually leans Democratic.
“He’s got a great record in Wisconsin, and I think he’s great,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of Senate GOP leadership. “It sounds like he had a good showing in Iowa at the Freedom Summit and getting a lot of good feedback from that. If he can continue to get his story out there, he’s got a lot of room to expand his support.”
A handful of Republicans said that members of the Wisconsin
congressional delegation, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R) have long talked up Walker and his accomplishments.
The 2012 vice presidential nominee could have a tough time deciding who to back if his onetime running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, throws his hat back in the ring.
“I think very highly of Congressman Ryan, who thinks very highly of him, and [Rep.] Sean Duffy [R-Wis.],” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who said he hasn’t met Walker but hears good things. “If you can win in a state like Wisconsin three times in a course of a handful of years, you’re certainly worth listening to.”
While no one’s ready to endorse this early in the process, GOP power players are gushing about Walker.
King, a favorite of movement conservatives, said he’s heard the most about Walker from other House members since he returned to D.C., especially from Midwestern Republicans. He said there’s “no doubt” that the governor generated a lot of buzz with his speech.
“He rolled up his sleeves, went out there and delivered. And that was a very positive presence for him; it worked out to be a very favorable stop,” he said.
Even some of Walker’s biggest proponents were surprised by how well he did in Iowa last weekend.
“I always assumed that many Republicans would take a hard look at Walker based on his accomplishments as governor. I was surprised that he’s getting such rave reviews on his presentation and speech in Iowa, which is not where I thought he’d shine,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who said he’d stay neutral in the primary.
The governor’s new fundraising group, Our American Revival, rolled out an introductory video on Wednesday, implicitly making the case for his candidacy.
“To reclaim our destiny, we must turn to bold, fresh and new ideas from those incubators of reform: the states,” the video says after attacking Washington politicians and showing photos of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The video then touts Walker’s record of “bold, conservative reform and new ideas, ideas that empower people and spark innovation, that turn around troubled economies.”
Walker’s well-received Iowa speech is only the first step in a marathon toward the nomination, and the drawn-out primary process often means candidates fade after a few good weeks.
But the speech helped undercut GOP doubters’ biggest criticism — that he lacks charisma and fire. Leaders from both wings of the party say Walker could be the man best positioned to unite the GOP.
“Americans have heard a lot more about him the last few weeks. He’s gone from a conservative hero to a well-known leading candidate. … There was interest before Iowa, but it’s peaked now,” said Fred Malek, a top Washington-based GOP donor who worked closely with Walker as finance chairman for the Republican Governors Association.
Walker will be in D.C. on Friday to address Malek’s group, the American Action Forum, and Malek plans to introduce the governor around the city.
Though he emphasized that he plans to stay neutral in the GOP primary, Malek said Walker is very popular with parts of the Republican donor class, pointing to the huge fundraising figures the governor posted for his recall election and subsequent reelection in the fall.
“He’s one of the few political leaders who has the respect to unite the party, who has trust and respect on the right for his many previous accomplishments in Wisconsin, and yet he doesn’t offend in any way the moderates and comes across to them as a sensible pragmatic person,” Malek continued. “He can bring it all together and he’ll be a really credible candidate.”