SCOTT WALKER- 10-12212016135255 (copy)

Gov. Scott Walker at the executive residence for a Cap Times interview in December.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has paid off the last of his presidential campaign debt, clearing the way for a likely re-election bid next year.

Walker ended his campaign in September 2015 about $1.2 million in the red. He steadily chipped away at it to reach his goal of paying down the debt by the end of 2016. 

"This upholds the formidable status of your fundraising operation," wrote campaign adviser Joe Fadness in a memo to the governor obtained by the Cap Times Friday. "As with your statewide campaigns — your election, the recall and your re-election — by retiring your presidential debt, you have shown that you are able to generate tremendous backing from devoted supporters under difficult circumstances."

Fadness noted Walker's attention was divided among governing, campaigning for other candidates in Wisconsin and fulfilling his duties as head of the Republican Governors Association. Walker held nearly three dozen fundraising events for state legislative candidates, according to the memo. 

Walker has hinted strongly that he will seek re-election in 2018, but has said he will hold off on announcing an official decision until after the 2017-19 budget is completed. His approval rating in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll, conducted just before the election in November, was at 42 percent. 

The Legislature has its largest Republican majority in decades, and for the first time since Walker took office, Republicans control the executive and legislative branches at the federal level — opening the door for Walker to pursue further changes to public benefits, health care coverage and environmental rules that were blocked under the Obama administration.

The governor has 30 fundraisers planned in the first half of 2017. His campaign entered the new year with $59,000 in the bank, according to the memo.

"Any potential re-election bid would now tap an unmatched donor base and benefit from the fundraising clout that comes with being elected chairman of RGA," Fadness wrote.

Fadness pointed to numbers from January 2013 through Walker's re-election in November 2014 for comparison: the campaign raised about $34 million during that effort.

"This was done in part because of your unparalleled donor base, which was boosted by the recall and is also notable for its small-dollar strength," Fadness wrote.

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Walker erased his debt by holding fundraisers, sending email solicitations and renting his email list, through a company called Granite Lists, to other candidates and causes.

One of the more memorable asks was an offer in April for a t-shirt — size and color chosen at random — in exchange for a $45 donation. For anyone who donated and received a shirt that doesn't fit, Walker suggested in his email they could be considered souvenirs of the campaign.

"Tonette tells me there are crafty things you can do with t-shirts like framing them or turning them into a pillow or bag," the email read.

Walker ended his campaign just two months after he officially launched his candidacy, although his run at the presidency started long before that. He was an early favorite who, after plummeting in the polls, called several times for the remaining Republican candidates to clear the field for a positive alternative to then-frontrunner Donald Trump.

Slow to embrace Trump as his party's candidate, Walker endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Wisconsin's presidential primary. He officially endorsed Trump this summer and spoke at the Republican National Convention where Trump accepted the party's nomination. 

Since Trump won the general election, Walker has signaled optimism for the incoming Republican administration, focusing on Wisconsin's relationship with the federal government.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.