Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines on Saturday. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose speech to activists in Iowa last weekend drew strong reviews, has taken the first formal step toward a presidential candidacy in 2016, establishing a committee that will help spread his message and underwrite his activities as he seeks to build his political and fundraising networks in the months ahead.
Walker filed papers to set up the committee, called "Our American Revival," and a new Web site for the organization was scheduled to go live later Tuesday. The steps come after a busy weekend of pre-presidential events that included his address at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a later appearance at a gathering in California hosted by the billionaire Koch brothers and a stopover in Denver for additional fundraising.
“Our American Revival encompasses the shared values that make our country great; limiting the powers of the federal government to those defined in the Constitution while creating a leaner, more efficient, more effective and more accountable government to the American people,” Walker said in a statement in the release announcing the committee.
Walker’s steps come at a time when other prospective candidates are making similar moves in what has quickly become the largest prospective field of Republican candidates and the most wide open nomination contest in the modern history of the party.
The governor’s Iowa speech helped establish him more firmly in a presidential field that includes bigger names like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and possibly Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, as well as bigger personalities like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, veterans of past presidential campaigns and newcomers with specific appeal to parts of the GOP’s conservative base.
The second-term governor has made no secret of his interest in becoming a candidate for the Republican nomination, and he has recently made key additions to his political team, including the hiring of Rick Wiley, a former Republican National Committee political director, to lead the organizing effort. Wiley will serve as executive director of Our American Revival.
The formation of the new committee represents Walker’s most significant step to date in a process that is expected to result in a declaration of candidacy later this year, once he and the legislature have gone through the budget process in his state.
Walker has had a stormy tenure as governor, but one in which he has repeatedly emerged victorious over his opponents. His decision to take on public employee unions in Wisconsin in early 2009 created huge protests around the state Capitol building in Madison and left the state deeply polarized around his leadership.
That anger resulted in a recall election in 2012, which Walker survived. He went on to win his reelection campaign last November by a comfortable margin, and his three victories in four years have made him a hero among many conservatives.
He now uses those battles as a badge of honor when he speaks at party gatherings. Last Saturday in Des Moines, he spoke of the death threats he and his family received during the height of the protests in Wisconsin and thanked those in the audience and elsewhere who had prayed for his family during those times. Along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Walker won the biggest ovations of the day from the conservative audience.
His message to Republicans is not one of compromise or conciliation with the Democrats. In Iowa, he called for a “big and bold” conservative agenda and predicted, based on his own experience in Wisconsin, that voters will respond positively to that type of leadership, even if they disagree with some of the particulars.
“If you’re not afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results,” he said in Iowa. “And if you get the job done, the voters will actually stand up with you.”
There is considerable interest in Walker’s likely candidacy, but there are many questions about him as a prospective presidential candidate as well, including whether he can scale up his political operation for a national race. He lacks foreign policy experience, though he is not alone in the GOP field on that issue.
His low-key personality has raised doubts about his capacity to generate excitement and energy among the party’s base, but his performance in Iowa on Saturday may have helped answer some of those questions.
Walker’s hope is to find some support in the establishment wing of the party, and as a second-term governor he will seek to appeal to those Republicans who believe their best hope of winning in 2016 is with a governor who has executive experience outside of Washington. He also has stressed the importance of new leaders and fresh faces in a party whose presidential field includes a group of prospective candidates who have been out of office for some years.
His battles with the unions and others in the Democratic left and his reform agenda in Wisconsin give him an entrée to the tea party wing of the GOP, and as the son of a Baptist minister he will try to appeal to religious conservatives as well.
A Walker candidacy faces obstacles in such a crowded field. Although he raised tens of millions of dollars for his recall election, he will have to prove that he can do so under the rules for presidential campaigns. He has gotten considerable scrutiny as governor, including revelations from legal action questioning whether his campaign engaged in illegal coordination. The legal investigations have resulted in no action against him, and he has maintained that he is not a target. But he will face even more scrutiny across the board as a presidential candidate.
Walker’s committee is different than some others created by aspiring presidential candidates. It is not a so-called leadership PAC but rather is a “527,” so labeled for the portion of the federal tax code that provides its tax-exempt status.
A Walker adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share internal discussions, said the governor decided to go that route because leadership PACs technically are designed in part to be vehicles to give money to other politicians. Many who create them use them principally for their own political activity. The committee can advocate for policies the governor has championed.
Regulations allow Walker to raise money for the committee in unlimited amounts but will require him to periodically reveal contributions and expenditures, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s Web site.