Many of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign donors are still up for grabs after the Republican dropped out of the presidential race Monday. Since Walker announced the suspension of his campaign, his staff members have scattered to other GOP candidates, some of them finding new camps within hours of the announcement. But donors are not necessarily committing to a new candidate just yet.
The suspension of Walker’s campaign came as a surprise to many of the candidate’s donors. Walker was the second high-profile governor to make an early exit from the 2016 race after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out Sept. 11.
Eric Anton, a senior managing director at HFF Inc., a real estate firm in New York, was slated to co-host a fundraiser for Walker Thursday, but he found out Monday that his favorite candidate would no longer be needing his support.
“I was disappointed,” Anton said. He said he had a feeling Walker might not make it through the primary season, but he was still surprised by the announcement. “I felt it was coming, but I didn’t think it would be so soon,” Anton said.
Immediately after Walker’s news leaked to the public, donors began receiving calls from other campaigns. Chart Westcott, an investor in Dallas who had given to a Walker super PAC and had thrown a fundraiser for the candidate, said he received calls from four campaigns before Walker officially announced the suspension of his campaign.
Several donors, including Westcott, said they were still reacting to Walker’s news and had not yet made a decision about whether they would support another candidate now that their favorited had dropped out. For his part, Anton said Tuesday that he was focused on deciding whether to give his support to Sen. Ted Cruz or Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I did want to support a governor, but these are two incredibly smart guys and I align with them on most issues,” Anton said. He added that he would guess most Walker supporters are looking at Cruz or Rubio.
While independent groups supporting Walker had raised a total of $26.23 million, that was not nearly as much as his competitors, and his campaign itself was struggling for cash. Many have pointed to the demise of Walker and Perry’s campaigns as signs that candidates need to focus on large war chests in addition to letting their super PACs collect large donations.
“Perry and Walker dropping out shows how overrated super PACs can be. Both of them had money in super PACs, but you have to keep the lights on and pay the staff,” said Kyle Kondick, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a politics site at the University of Virginia. “Getting hard money for your campaign is still very important."
In Walker’s statement, he urged other candidates to drop out “so the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current front-runner.” Indeed, as the GOP field begins to narrow, strategists are asking who will be the candidate the party can unite around. While some have pointed to Rubio as an obvious heir to some of Walker’s appeal and donor support, there are still many directions the money could go.
Because Walker had very little support in recent polls, the voter effect of his absence is likely to be negligible in the short term. But Kondick said that other candidates may be helped by donors now or down the road in Iowa.
“Walker could have been a more establishment candidate, but he chose not to do that. … He was pursuing more of an Iowa-centric strategy. So it stands to reason that if Walker is out, it might help the Iowa-centric candidates more,” Kondick said. That could mean Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal, according to Kondick.
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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the onetime GOP front-runner, was also hoping to pick up some of Walker’s donors in Iowa. "That's been some of the effort this afternoon and going forward," Bush told reporters after a campaign stop in northern Iowa Monday. "We're working them hard, for sure."
But new polls out Tuesday confirm a negative trend for the former governor. Bush has had the largest fall in polling numbers over the past month in Iowa. He was in fourth place at 11 percent last month and is now in a tie for sixth place with just 6 percent. His favorability rating is also at 38 percent in Iowa, with 40 percent of voters saying they see him negatively. This failure to excite voters has been a significant hindrance, especially since candidates like Carson and businessman Donald Trump have inspired vocal fan bases.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina is third in Iowa at 13 percent. Fiorina has had a recent spike in popularity following her strong performance in last week’s Republican debate, but she has not focused as many resources on Iowa as some of the other candidates and so seems less likely to receive a boost from Walker leaving the race.
There's still time for candidates to impress voters and donors, but the window is closing. The third GOP debate will be held Oct. 28 -- with at least one less candidate.