This story has been updated.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has suspended his presidential campaign, effectively ending a once-promising GOP presidential bid that collapsed amid tepid debate performances and other missteps.
“Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top,” Walker said in a brief speech in Madison, Wisconsin, on Monday evening. “With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately.”
Walker said that because the Republican field is so crowded, candidates have become focused on “personal attacks” instead of the substantial issues that matter most to voters. He urged those still in the race to refocus on the core values of the Republican Party: creating jobs, reducing the size of government and strengthening the military. In dropping out, Walker encouraged other Republicans to do the same so that “voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front runner.” In making that plea, Walker did not name the current front-runner, businessman Donald Trump.
The announcement Monday stunned Walker’s major supporters and many of his staff members. It was an unexpected and rapid fall for a candidate who just two months ago was considered a top-tier candidate. But this summer Walker’s campaign quickly became overshadowed by Trump and other candidates who have never held elected office — along with his own misstatements and missteps on the campaign trail. Walker’s backers have become increasingly frustrated to see their candidate become discombobulated and commit unforced errors, either out of lack of preparation or in an attempt to grab part of the flamboyant businessman’s following.
Discussion of Walker among major Republican financiers and party leaders as a future presidential contender first surfaced in 2011, soon after Walker began his first term as governor and rolled out a series of labor reforms that riled Democrats, both in Madison and nationally, and curbed collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions. Walker quickly became a favorite of tea-party activists and his calm amid protests at the state capitol landed him on the cover of conservative magazines. He soon became a regular presence on Fox News. A year later, as he battled and ultimately won a recall election, he was being touted as a possible vice-presidential candidate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
“It was nice for him to get that attention in the in short run, but it set up expectations he couldn’t hope to maintain,” said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
Union leadership, which had long considered Walker a top target, reacted quickly Monday to reports that he was suspending his campaign. “Scott Walker is still a disgrace, just no longer national,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a terse afternoon statement.
In recent days, Walker had pulled back from other early-voting states in favor of a heavy focus on Iowa, where he once led the field and had strong roots as a Midwesterner. But his numbers there had sunk dramatically. There aren’t many loyal Walker voters in the state left to claim, said Steve Grubbs, Iowa strategist for Republican presidential rival Rand Paul. “The reality is that there was a very significant shift from Walker to Trump over the last 8-10 weeks,” he said, adding that it was those voters who might be up for grabs. “As Walker is out, and Trump begins to lose support, those voters will come back into play. And we believe that a lot of those voters are gettable,” said Grubbs.
In a phone interview Monday with The Washington Post, Trump himself praised Walker’s character and gubernatorial record and said he would reach out to his former rival in the coming days to offer encouragement.
“I really liked him a lot. I thought he was a terrific person. He has been a terrific governor. I got to know him pretty well. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t worked out better for him. Many people thought he’d be the primary competition, at least initially,” Trump said. “But it obviously wasn’t working out.”
Trump, who proudly surrounds himself with a small group of aides, wondered if Walker was hurt by too much advice and management from his political consultants. “He was very loose guy when he came up to see me a few months ago to give me a plaque, but then on the campaign, maybe there were too many people. I think he had too many people, many of them who didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.
In fact, the large cadre of staff and paid consultants around Walker had been on what one called a “death watch” for the past several weeks. It was clear to many that a single bad debate performance would spell the beginning of a dramatic downsizing of Walker’s campaign, with Walker staffers bracing for spending cuts, layoffs and a shake-up in the campaign leadership; following the last debate, there had been louder and louder calls from many donors and fundraisers for Walker to replace his campaign manager, Rick Wiley.
Then came the CNN poll on Sunday that was like a punch in the gut: The governor who had once been considered one of the front-runners was now polling at less than one percent – so low that he received an asterisk on some charts instead of an actual number. A heavy cloud fell over the campaign.
Over the weekend, Walker skipped two previously scheduled appearances in Michigan and California, angering Republicans in states with high numbers of delegates, so that he could instead spend more time in Iowa. There, he struck several people as looking exhausted and beaten down.
Still, the candidate kept his deliberations to quit the race very close, with a full schedule of events planned for this week that included campaign stops in Indiana and Virginia and a fundraiser in New York City at the home of one of his major donors, Joe Ricketts. Most staff, including senior aides, found out only Monday that he had decided to suspend his campaign later in the day.
Earlier this month, campaigning in New Hampshire, he was hammered with questions about how his campaign would handle falling poll numbers, and the rise of Trump. “We just have to stay constant, stay who you are,” he told one supporter in Rochester.
Staying constant, however, had been one of his biggest challenges. On key issues of the day — from calls to end birthright citizenship to the jailing of a Kentucky county official who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses — Walker struggled more than other candidates to clearly explain where he stood.
His verbal missteps — often the result of answering questions on the campaign trail with responses that he was forced to amend and later clarify — had been a topic of concern among his own loyalists. Last month, he twice found himself forced to clarify something he had said, first on whether he supported an end to birthright citizenship and again after an offhand answer that suggested he favored building a wall on the U.S.-Canadian border.
Angst had built among Walker’s top fundraisers and donors in the last two weeks as his poll numbers plummeted in Iowa and nationwide. Some backers had begun to fear that, as a result of his drop in the polls, Walker had adopted a persona that didn’t square with his low-key demeanor and personality. As one person who has known him for some years put it, the tough-guy approach — including his recent promises to “wreak havoc” on Washington — was not a good fit.
When asked last week on Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom” if he was thinking about making any changes to his campaign, Walker skirted the question.
“For us, the biggest thing to get is that grassroots,” he said. “You know Ronald Reagan was behind in the polls in 1980… He went forward and obviously won that election and brought about one of the best presidencies we’ve had I think in modern American history.”
Rival campaigns began contacting top Walker donors to urge them to come aboard even before the Wisconsin governor confirmed he was bowing out. Vin Weber said Bush’s campaign was aggressively reaching out to Walker donors and staffers Monday afternoon. “We thought it happened a little sooner than expected, but it was inevitable. There was not a path back for him, based on his performance as a candidate. And even though he was an asterisk in the polls, his decision will help to clarify the race, sending a strong message to other candidates who aren’t registering to move on and get the party down to 5 or 6 candidates who are viable.”
Philip Rucker, Matea Gold, Sean Sullivan and David Weigel contributed to this report.