By Scott Bland
Scott Walker scrapped his presidential campaign more than six months ago, with more than $1 million in debt to his name but not a single delegate. But since his campaign died, Walker has quietly taken steps that keep his future presidential options very much alive.
The Wisconsin governor left a key piece of his national political infrastructure in place: Our American Revival, the tax-exempt “527” organization that housed his pre-presidential campaign operation, continues to collect funding from big-money GOP donors and fund some of Walker’s travel.
Walker has kept a lower profile since September, focusing on a jam-packed schedule of “listening tour” events across Wisconsin and looking to boost his flagging poll numbers. But Walker has simultaneously preserved his national political infrastructure and even, via campaign duties for Republican governors, opened new doors to a second act in national politics — including a possible second shot at running for president.
“His focus is within the state, in spending time talking with voters. The listening sessions he’s been doing … that is an opportunity to kind of reconnect with voters in the state,” Keith Gilkes, Walker’s chief political adviser, said in an interview. But, Gilkes says: “People still want to hear his story and what’s been enacted in Wisconsin. … OAR provides that vehicle for him to travel and talk about it more extensively. It gives him the opportunity from time to time to weigh in nationally.”
A D.C. Republican was more blunt: “The 527 … leaves all options open for what he wants to do next,” the Republican said. “Run for governor, not run, run for president in 2020 — it’s a vehicle for whatever he wants.”
With the GOP’s 2016 nominating contest still unsettled headed into Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday, Walker’s name has drifted in and out of the frenzied Republican conversation about a contested or brokered convention. The governor has said that a contested convention could end up nominating a candidate who’s not currently running for president. But there is no indication he’s angling for such a leap, especially after endorsing Ted Cruz and appearing in a TV ad for the Texan this week.
Though Walker’s super PAC shuttered soon after he left the White House race, his 527 group is so-far well-financed: OAR collected more than $1 million in November and December from funders including GOP megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, according to filings with the IRS. Few politicians, outside Walker and other GOP presidential hopefuls who worked with similar groups in 2015, have such a nationally focused organization, and the late donations gave OAR over a half-million dollars in the bank at the start of 2016, per the IRS filings.
Walker’s core political team — including his former gubernatorial campaign managers Gilkes and Stephan Thompson, longtime advisers R.J. Johnson and Joe Fadness, and pollsters Brian Tringali and B.J. Martino from the Tarrance Group — have “gotten the band back together,” in Gilkes’ words, under the umbrella of OAR and Walker’s state campaign committee. They are tackling debt left from a disappointing presidential campaign run by newcomers to Team Walker, as well as rebooting Walker’s state political operation with an early eye on reelection there in 2018.
And OAR is not the only group keeping Walker involved in national politics. Walker has also leapt into candidate recruiting and fundraising duties for the Republican Governors Association, after winning the group’s vice-chairmanship late last year, just months after ending his presidential bid.