On the third day of a three-day trip to Iowa, part of his announcement tour last week after launching his campaign for president, the Wisconsin governor was to return to Plainfield, population 450, where he had lived for seven years as a young boy.
A crowd of locals and a handful of visitors gathered inside a sweltering barn to wait. Walker’s mother snapped photos from a small digital camera; she had considered baking cookies for the occasion. Both his parents wore American flag-patterned clothes, and sat among longtime friends and acquaintances.
Among them was Betty Balsley, Walker’s third grade teacher, who remembered him as an inquisitive boy with excellent grades.
“I can’t say he was an angel. He was a little mischievous,” Balsley said, smiling at her memory of the less-than-cherubic 9-year-old Scott Walker. “He liked to talk. You could just see the gleam in his eye then that you see now.”
Chris Overheu recalled a time when her grandparents had traveled to Colorado in 1970 to help the Walker family move to Iowa. A load of damp clothes was tossing around in the Walkers’ dryer when they arrived, but they packed it up anyway.
“When they got here, their clothes were still in the dryer,” Overheu laughed.
JoAnn Iheu lived across the street from the Walkers back then, and two of her daughters babysat Scott and his brother David. “They were normal boys,” Iheu said, describing the days they whiled away on bicycles through the town.
Now, one of those boys is running for president. But even as Scott Walker’s branded Winnebago pulled up to the intersection of Mill and Stewart streets at the Dietz family farm in Plainfield, Iheu didn’t know if she would caucus for the Wisconsin governor come February.
“I’m not much of a political person,” she shrugged.
Overheu, whose family shares credit for physically bringing Walker to Iowa in the first place, was also wavering. “I haven’t decided,” she said. “I’m just trying to sort it all out.”
Even Balsley, who brags that she “taught [Walker] how to add and subtract,” was unsure whether she would make it to the caucuses. “Maybe,” she said.
There is no question that Walker is the Republican to beat in Iowa: He is practically a local, and he is polling on average 10 points ahead of his closest GOP challengers. One survey, released last week by Monmouth University, showed Walker with a stunning 73 percent approval rating among Hawkeye State Republicans, with just 9 percent disapproval.
But, as Walker’s own homecoming suggested, none of that means winning Iowa will be easy.
“Most Republicans are in the dating rather than marrying phase in the process,” said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman. “But Walker’s doing all the right things.”
That includes having established solid foundational support for his candidacy and built up his organizational muscle—with David Polyansky, an alum of Joni Ernst’s successful Senate bid and of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 caucus victory, leading Walker’s Iowa operations.
Meanwhile, Walker’s story—of taking on teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, facing a recall election and winning—has captured Iowans’ imaginations, a point even Walker’s challengers concede.
“I think people are excited to see a Republican who’s won in a blue state and who stood up and fought the unions,” said Sen. Ted Cruz as he campaigned concurrently in Iowa last weekend. “Those are unambiguously good, and it isn’t surprising that he has support.”
But Iowa Republicans also place a premium on being able to relate personally with their preferred presidential candidates. It is no coincidence that the previous two winners of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, prevailed without muscular infrastructure or elaborate campaign strategy. Instead, they visited every county, and met as many people as they could.
Walker has already pledged to visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties, and his normal-guy routine has already become one of his hallmarks. He has fashioned an old anecdote about shopping at the discount retailer Kohl’s into a climactic moment in his stump speech and, more recently, used it as a strained segue into tax policy, dubbing his version of the Laffer Curve the “Kohl’s Curve.”
The schtick is hokey, and effective. Throughout Iowa, audiences chuckled knowingly as Walker launched into the Kohl’s portion of his stump speech. At one stop, a woman gave Walker a 30-percent-off Kohl’s coupon, which he stuffed into a pocket of his Levi’s to brandish at other events. The following day, he pulled it out to show a Kohl’s store manager who approached him. She gushed, “If only we could run our country the way we run our company.”
Walker’s greatest asset in Iowa, however, might be his proximity. When he discusses his record as Wisconsin governor, Walker talks about what he did “just across the Mississippi [River].” At each stop, he shows a faded photo of himself and his brother David as small boys, holding an Iowa flag they raised money to buy for the Plainfield town hall. He jokes about the Big Ten, and he seizes any opportunity to use “Midwest” in the first person plural.
“That’s the kind of people we are here in the Midwest,” Walker told a crowd in Council Bluffs. “We stand up for what’s right, we do the right thing. We don’t make a lot of fuss about it, we just do it.”
It might sound trivial, but in Iowa politics, feeling comfortable with a candidate is paramount. Walker “talks like we do,” noted Strawn. “He drinks the same beers we do.”
“The most important thing to be successful in caucuses is, you need to be accessible and authentic,” Strawn added. “The last few caucus winners have been people Iowans found relatable.”
With so many factors seemingly in their favor, Walker’s team is not being coy: They think he will win Iowa, as they recently told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. At Walker’s first Iowa stop as a candidate, in Davenport, a reporter asked whether those high expectations would make any finish short of first place a devastating, perhaps fatal blow.
“I used to run track in my small town,” Walker said. “I had plenty of victories that I came from behind on. I had others where my coach used to say, ‘It’s a lot easier to win if you’re ahead.’”
Walker has been ahead in Iowa for nearly as long as he has tested the waters there. The state’s first impression of him, in January, was all butterflies and starry eyes: At the Iowa Freedom Summit, Walker gave an unremarkable speech and wowed everyone. By mid-February, Walker had shot into the lead among Republicans in Iowa, and he has been there ever since.
At the Family Leader summit last weekend in Ames, Iowa, an evangelical-centric event that drew nine Republican presidential candidates, moderator Frank Luntz marveled aloud at Walker’s trajectory. “You couldn’t possibly have thought back in January that you would go from 2 or 3 percent in the polls to be the frontrunner in Iowa,” Luntz said. “What happened?”
“Well, I think back in January, the media thought: This guy’s not as charismatic, he doesn’t have all this money,” Walker reasoned. Then came his Freedom Summit speech. “And we just gave a speech where I talked like I’ve talked for the past three or four years, and just told the story of what we did. And people suddenly said, ‘Maybe this guy can break through. Maybe he can be a legitimate candidate.’”
On his first swing through Iowa as a candidate for president, Walker did not attempt to rewrite his formula. His stump speech is fundamentally unchanged from January: The Kohl’s story is there, as is the one recounting Walker’s battle against Wisconsin’s unions and subsequent recall fight. For many Iowans, those riffs are still new: In an NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday, 33 percent of Iowa Republicans still did not know enough about Walker to have formed an opinion of him.
But others are beginning to take a second, harder look. At Walker’s Iowa events, it was rare to find a supporter who was not considering other candidates: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, even Donald Trump.
“I’m still looking around, but I like that he’s a governor,” said Lisa Gullickson at an event for Walker in Urbandale, Iowa. “I think that executive experience is important.”
The two preeminent counter-memes about Walker, gradually being reinforced by his challengers, are that he is a political opportunist and a foreign policy neophyte. Walker has begun working in earnest to assuage concerns about the latter, and he now devotes a large portion of his stump speech to this topic. He told reporters he has “spent six or seven months meeting with former generals, meeting with military leaders, meeting with former state department officials and ambassadors and world leaders.”
But, tellingly, Walker took questions at only two of 11 events on this particular tour of Iowa. When he deviated off-script, he occasionally hiccupped: At one stop, he suggested he might need to engage in military action against Iran on his first day in office.
The opportunist charge could be trickier to counter.
In recent months, Walker has taken pronounced steps to the right on a few key issues. In March, he said his “view has changed” on immigration reform, and he no longer supports allowing those undocumented immigrants already in America to stay. Walker formerly supported the Common Core education standards—until last year, when he called for Wisconsin to opt out. Last month, Walker signed into law a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, with narrow exceptions.
Cruz, during an interview in Brooklyn, Iowa, suggested without naming Walker that such shifts would be important. “I think Republican primary voters are going to ask of every candidate in the field: Show me where you’ve stood and led on the great battles of the day.”
Such as: “When have you led the fight against Common Core? And did you used to support Common Core, but only flipped to opposing it when you declared your candidacy for president?”
So far, these calculated shifts have benefited Walker, enabling him to straddle the ravine dividing conservative and establishment Republicans. For now, he is drawing support in Iowa from all corners of the GOP. But it’s a tightrope act, perhaps even more so with 15 other Republicans in the race. Caucuses are notoriously finicky even under the most stable electoral conditions, tending to draw wildly unrepresentative samples of the electorate. Theoretically, with as many as 16 candidates participating, this effect would be exaggerated, meaning that anything could happen, or anyone could win.
What would set Walker apart, he reasons, is that he is a politician who can both “fight and win.”
“A lot of times in a multi-person campaign, it’s difficult if you don’t have a clear thing that draws people to you,” Walker said. “I think in the end that’s our draw, that’s our niche.”
At a Harley-Davidson dealership in Carroll, Iowa, on Saturday, that theme capped off Walker’s stump speech.
“I’m not going to speak ill of the others individually, but I’m going to tell you there is a difference in this election,” Walker said. You see, there’s really two groups out there. There are fighters and there are winners. There are fighters, many of whom are in Washington, who are fighting the good fight day after day, week after week, month after month, but they have not won those fights. There are winners, people who get elected and re-elected, but you know what? They have not consistently fought the good fights over and over for the issues of the day.”
“I would submit to you, there is only one candidate who has consistently fought and won,” Walker continued. “If you want someone who will fight and win for you, fight and win for America, I am your candidate going forward.”
Walker uses this line constantly in public appearances and interviews with the press. It is the central pitch of his campaign, the trump card he thinks he holds to beat Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Cruz, and the many other Republican actors vying for attention on the national stage. As Walker traveled through Iowa last week, the narrative seemed to resonate with nearly every audience—except, perhaps, a sitting member of Congress who has waged a few futile fights of his own.
“When I heard that, I thought, it’s a different arena,” said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican cast in the firebrand mold, who enthusiastically greeted Walker in Carroll and stuck around for his speech. “You’ve got Barack Obama the president, and, at this point, when you have a speaker that’s unwilling to commit all the resources of the House of Representatives to challenge this president, it’s almost impossible for anybody to win against him. And I say that from direct personal experience.”
Later that day, when confronted with King’s remarks, Walker sought to tone down what he had said—and would still say many times again—for a rare moment breaking from his script.
“If you’re a member of Congress, it’s different,” Walker said. “But if you want to be president, I don’t think people want to have on-the-job training to see if you can do something or not.”
“My point was not to belittle members of Congress, but rather to say, if you want to know what someone’s going to do in office, the best thing to look at is, have they been a chief executive who’s gotten things done?” he continued. “My point is, it’s easy—not easy, but it’s easier to make a point that you’re fighting for something in Washington or anywhere else than to actually do it. We’ve done it.”
But at the event in Carroll, Iowa, King didn’t appear to feel belittled. On the contrary, he seemed star struck. Scott Walker, the most aggressively normal guy in the room, somehow has that effect. Catching up with constituents after Walker spoke, King reflected on Walker’s presentation with a wide grin. What a fighter! Such a normal guy!
“His blue jeans are worn out,” King mused to one man. “That’s a good sign.” The following day, a Sunday, Walker pulled into Plainfield on his campaign Winnebago. The sweaty crowd awaiting him, including his former neighbors and his 3rd grade teacher and his parents, had already been briefed: The governor would arrive in his RV, meet with the family who owns the farm next door, make brief remarks, shoot a live television hit, tour the farm, come back to meet the crowd.
“When he comes in here, let’s give him a big round of applause,” the event’s hype man had urged. They did as instructed, and Walker launched into his standard stump speech, with a few hometown memories added in. He did not take questions and bounded off to see the farm, on schedule and on script.
But a Latino family intercepted him. The father, José Flores, arrived in the U.S. 19 years ago from Mexico and is still undocumented. With him were his daughter Leslie and son Luis, both natural born citizens. Activists with the group Voces de la Frontera, they had driven four hours from Waukesha, Wis., to ask Walker why he would not support a path to citizenship for José and others like him, who risk being separated from their families.
“I sympathize,” Walker told them when he had returned from his interview, but “no one man or woman is above the law.” Walker was calm. Leslie Flores was in tears. Reporters encircled them, filming the interaction. It was not the headline Walker’s campaign had planned. It was not the visual they had imagined. Walker had stuck to his script, but the plot arc had shifted around him.
But Scott Walker was still the Iowa frontrunner. The man to beat. The local boy done good.
Before the Winnebago rolled on, someone produced an Iowa flag, and Scott Walker and his brother posed with it, recreating the faded photo that had become a part of Walker’s stump speech—as if to revive some roots from many years ago, or to plant a flag for Walker on even one small patch of Iowa dirt.