DES MOINES, Iowa — With an eye trained on the Republican presidential nomination, Gov. Scott Walker told Iowa conservatives that Americans need a leader willing to embrace big ideas. And he promised the GOP faithful his appearance Saturday at the unofficial kickoff of the 2016 primary campaign would be the first of many visits to the Hawkeye State this year.
Walker, with shirtsleeves rolled back, sounded like he was back on the stump for the fourth time in five years, telling conservative Iowa activists at a 19th century brick theater not far from the state capitol that he won elections because he wasn’t afraid to “go big and go bold.”
“I think that sends a powerful message to Republicans in Washington and around the country: If you’re not afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results,” Walker said.
In introducing himself to a crowd whose political muscle he’ll need for a strong showing in the influential Iowa caucuses, Walker highlighted much of his resume already familiar to Wisconsin voters: stripping the “last-in, first-out” union layoff rules, reducing property taxes, and requiring voter ID, which has been put on hold by the courts. He also said he defunded Planned Parenthood and backed anti-abortion legislation, which he downplayed during his recent re-election campaign.
“With your help, I have no doubt we can move this country forward,” Walker said in closing the 20-minute speech to roaring approval from the several hundred people attending the inaugural Iowa Freedom Summit.
It was Walker’s first political visit to the state in two years. He hasn’t formally declared his candidacy, but he has taken several steps toward an announcement, including hiring a national consultant and an expert in Iowa politics.
Later Saturday Walker attended an event in California sponsored by a group affiliated with billionaires Charles and David Koch, and he’s also scheduled to speak in the coming weeks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and at a New Hampshire GOP event, his first in that state.
He told reporters Saturday that he expects to make a decision about running by this summer.
The summit was hosted by Rep. Steve King and the conservative group Citizens United. It featured other potential Republican presidential contenders, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former governors Rick Perry of Texas and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, business executive Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Other prominent conservatives included former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and real estate magnate Donald Trump, who said he is “seriously considering running for president.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney didn’t attend.
Democrats sought to tie the candidates to King, who recently referred to one of President Barack Obama’s guests at the State of the Union as a “deportable.”
Democratic National Committee chairman Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz called the event “a ring-kissing summit masquerading as a political forum” and said the speakers were “attaching their names to Steve King’s rhetoric.”
She criticized Walker directly, saying “instead of using his position as governor and exercising leadership to bring people together, he appears to have taken every opportunity to divide people in Wisconsin.”
Iowa holds the first nominating contest of the 2016 race a year from now, and how well candidates do in the caucuses can make or break their campaigns. The Iowa Straw Poll in August also has traditionally helped sort the field as the campaign season kicks into high gear.
Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad, who spoke at the event, told reporters that it’s important for candidates to finish in the top three in the Iowa caucus.
“You skip Iowa at your own peril,” he said.
Because Walker hails from a neighboring state, he has a built-in advantage and perhaps a perception that he’ll do well in the state, said University of Iowa political science professor Cary Covington.
“He needs to meet or exceed the expectations,” Covington said.
Walker will also have to raise gobs of cash in order to be competitive. Covington said the total needed likely will be in the tens of millions of dollars.
“If there’s not people spending money on his behalf he won’t have very long legs,” Covington said.
Bush and Romney are considered to have the deepest fundraising networks, though Walker’s successful recall campaign in 2012 helped him build more of a national donor base than most governors. And since being inaugurated for a second term this month he has been increasingly seen as a viable alternative to those more high-profile Republicans.
Walker spent seven years of his childhood in Plainfield, a small village about two hours northeast of Des Moines not far from the farm of Iowa’s senior U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. His father was a Baptist minister, and he wove references to his faith into his speech Saturday.
“We could feel the power of those prayers,” Walker said in thanking Iowans for their support during the 2012 recall. “In those darkest of times we needed them.”
Walker told the audience he and his family received death threats during the protests over Act 10, the 2011 law that largely eliminated collective bargaining for most public sector unions. When he resurrected a reference to someone threatening to “gut his wife like a deer,” which he included in his memoir, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” the crowd gasped.
The story impressed Brent Buddi, 45, a pipe welder from Sioux City who said he came to the event in Carson’s corner, but after hearing Walker changed his mind.
“When he was talking I was thinking, ‘That’s who we need running for president,” Buddi said.
Impact of Iowa
The Iowa presidential battlefield has ended the campaigns of several Midwest Republican governors. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson saw his White House aspirations cut short soon after placing sixth in the Iowa Straw Poll in August 2007.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty staked his 2012 presidential hopes on a strong showing in Iowa, but after placing third in the poll he dropped out of the race.
Caroline Tolbert, a University of Iowa political science professor and co-author of “Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process,” said presidential candidates come to Iowa seeking what George H.W. Bush called “the Big Mo” — momentum.
“If you are the first off the blocks, you have a slight advantage in that pool throughout that race,” Tolbert said. “If you do well in these early events it’s like getting off the block quicker.”
Winning, however, is not as important as beating expectations, Tolbert said, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney demonstrated in 2008.
Obama built momentum with his surprise win in the Iowa caucus, while Romney, who had won the straw poll the previous August, lost momentum after finishing second behind Huckabee.
Walker’s campaign has hired David Polyansky, who helped Huckabee win, to lead his Iowa effort. Polyansky also worked for former Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann when she won the 2011 straw poll, and most recently was a top strategist for Joni Ernst’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in the state.
Because the caucus format comes down to herding activists to libraries, churches and school gymnasiums in January, traditional mass market media campaigns aren’t as effective as direct contact with the voters.
“Iowa demands that you show up,” Tolbert said. “Spending time in Iowa matters.”
By that measure, Walker has a lot of catching up to do. A U.S. News trip tracker shows before Saturday, Perry had made the most visits to Iowa since January 2013 with eight. Cruz had been in the state seven times, Huckabee six and Christie five.
Walker last visited Iowa in September for a trade conference with Midwest and Japanese governors. His only political visit to the state since Jan. 1, 2013, came in May of that year for a Polk County Republican Party annual dinner in Des Moines.
Andy Cable, the GOP chairman for King’s 4th Congressional district, said attending big city events in Iowa is nice, “but you’re not talking to the people who will be voting in the caucuses.”
[Editor's note: This story was changed to reflect that Scott Walker attended an event in California on Saturday, not Sunday.]