Scott Walker’s big Iowa challenge

Four years ago, the popular just-retired governor of an Upper Midwest state was pinning his hopes of a presidential run on neighboring Iowa. Those hopes came to an end when Tim Pawlenty withdrew from the presidential race after a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll.

It seemed like a case of being knocked over by a feather. However, Pawlenty needed to do well in Iowa, and was outflanked on the establishment side by the much better-funded Mitt Romney and on the right by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. I think he correctly read the handwriting on Iowa walls.

Now, another popular Upper Midwest governor needs to do well in Iowa. Accordingly, Scott Walker came to Des Moines this weekend hoping to translate a huge volume of good will into support for a presidential bid.

By all accounts, Walker’s appearance at the Iowa Freedom Summit, hosted by conservative congressman Steve King, went well. According to The Hill:

The Wisconsin governor, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, paced the stage as he blasted big government and touted a long list of conservative reforms he’s pushed through in blue Wisconsin. The governor also showed a rhetorical flourish that’s largely been absent from his previous campaigns, drawing the crowd to its feet multiple times.

“There’s a reason we take a day off to celebrate the 4th of July and not the 15th of April,” he said, almost yelling as his voice grew hoarse. “Because in America we value our independence from the government, not our dependence on it.”

Walker’s speech had something for every element of the activist crowd. The governor touted his three victories over Democrats and recall win as well as his state-level education reforms. Each new policy he helped pass drew cheers: Voter ID laws, education reforms, tax cuts and defunding Planned Parenthood.

Talk to almost any Republican, and Walker will be on his or her shortlist for the presidential nomination. But that probably isn’t good enough. He needs an early primary or caucus victory, or at least a strong second place showing. And he probably won’t be able to survive a middle of the pack finish in a state where he can reasonably be expected to do better.

Given its proximity to Wisconsin, Iowa looks like such a state, just as it was for Pawlenty.

By virtue of the ability to fire up activists that he displayed this weekend (for example), Walker seems better equipped to wow Iowa conservatives than Pawlenty was. But he faces the same structural problem.

Walker is unlikely to be the preferred establishment candidate — that niche presumably will belong to Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney, either/both of whom surely will be better financed. And Walker will be hard-pressed to outflank Ted Cruz and perhaps Rand Paul on the right.

Furthermore, Mike Huckabee (and maybe even Rick Santorum) presumably will have the edge with Iowa evangelical voters. Huckabee and Santorum, not coincidentally, are the winners of the most recent Iowa caucuses.

If Walker is lucky, Bush and Romney will both run (along, maybe with Chris Christie), splitting the “establishment” vote; Santorum will be strong enough to peel away support from Huckabee among evangelicals; and Rand Paul will erode Ted Cruz’s support among Tea Party voters.

But this scenario feels like drawing to an inside straight.

What Walker really needs to do is stand out from the crowd. He’s already well-regarded across the Republican spectrum; now he must set hearts a-flutter on a large scale.

It won’t be easy to become the undisputed Iowa heartthrob. Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are terrific speakers, and the latter two are (like Walker) fresh faces. None of three can match Walker’s record of governing successfully (though Bush, Christie, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal arguably can). But since when is such a record required of a heartthrob, especially among Iowa Republican caucus goers?

In 2011-12, a poorly-funded Santorum broke out in Iowa, and not just among evangelicals, partly through sheer persistence. He wasn’t flashy, but to many he seemed compelling. And he was always around.

But Santorum was running in a much weaker field. And Santorum had no job. Walker still has to govern Wisconsin.

In sum, Walker faces a daunting challenge. The Hill’s report suggests that he could catch fire in Iowa.

Walker isn’t the only Republican who could, but he’s the one I think I’ll be rooting for. At a minimum, Walker deserves to make it into the top tier and obtain the scrutiny of Republicans in a cross-section of states.

Responses