LAS VEGAS — Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday took his newly declared White House bid to the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip, seeking inroads in a key presidential state to which he has paid little attention until now.
“Just like Wisconsin is one of those key battleground states, Nevada is as well,” Walker told reporters after the event.
Nevada political observers say Walker, buoyed by favorable national poll numbers and a reputation as a conservative reformer, enters the Silver State in a strong position amid a crowded Republican field.
But they also say Walker is playing catch-up here with others, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have spent more time and resources here.
“He essentially is in the embryonic stage here in Nevada,” said Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political commentator.
Nevada is the fourth presidential contest state and the first in the West, as well as a perennial swing state in the general election.
It’s also home to Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson — a fact that had many here speculating Walker would visit Adelson while in Las Vegas. Walker quashed that theory by saying he had no plans to see Adelson on this trip, while acknowledging such a visit might happen in the future.
Walker “clearly is on the radar for Adelson,” Ralston said.
Tuesday was the first full day of Walker’s official campaign for the White House after he announced his candidacy in Waukesha on Monday.
Now Walker, widely viewed as a top contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, embarks on a national tour that will take him to early presidential states such as South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa — all where he has spent more time than Nevada. Iowa, in particular, is considered a linchpin of Walker’s national strategy.
Speaking Tuesday at a Harley-Davidson dealership in Las Vegas, Walker sought to fill in the blanks of his views on foreign policy. Walker adopted a hawkish stance while criticizing President Barack Obama for striking a deal with Iran on nuclear arms.
“Iran is not a place that we should do business with,” Walker said, backed by a towering American flag. “As president, I would terminate the bad deal with Iran on day one.”
Walker also touted the sweeping changes he brought to Wisconsin state government and pledged to take them to Washington, D.C., as president. Walker emphasized collective bargaining changes, drug testing for welfare recipients, school choice measures and other laws he signed as Wisconsin governor.
One of the biggest applause lines came when Walker said Wisconsin voters will be required to produce a photo ID to vote, under a law passed by Walker and Republican lawmakers.
Gary Forsch was one of the Nevadans who came to see Walker Tuesday. Forsch said he doesn’t know much about Walker but is encouraged by what he accomplished in Wisconsin.
“I’m really impressed with him,” Forsch said. “He put forth his message and won — in a blue state.”
Eric Herzik, political science professor at University of Nevada-Reno, said Walker holds a key advantage in Nevada: his resume — featuring clashes with unions and a hold-the-line approach on taxes — appeals across Nevada’s Balkanized GOP electorate. Republicans in Nevada have splintered between establishment, tea party and libertarian factions, Herzik said, making it tough for most candidates to approach that kind of broad appeal.
Greg Ferraro, a Nevada Republican strategist not currently affiliated with a presidential campaign, says Walker comes to Nevada with solid name recognition, starting with his 2012 recall election win. That could help Walker stand out in a packed GOP field, Ferraro said.
“He’s had some pretty high-profile battles, and he’s won most of them,” Ferraro said. “He’s probably got a pretty darn good opening line: ‘I’ve done it, and I’m still doing it.’”
The Nevada caucuses’ victor may not need to win over many voters, especially if the field remains so crowded. The caucuses drew just 8 percent of the state’s 400,000-plus registered Republicans in 2012.
A key slice of the GOP electorate here are Mormon voters, who account for as much as one-fourth of Republican caucus-goers, according to Ralston.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, fared well in Nevada, winning the caucuses in 2012 and 2008. So the candidate who earns Romney’s endorsement will score a coup here, Ferraro said.
Another sought-after endorsement could be that of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. The popular second-term governor, who counts Ferraro among his advisers, has developed a national profile as a Republican who can win over independent, swing and Latino voters.
Then there’s the question of whether Walker — be it now or later — will seek support from Adelson, who spent nearly $100 million in the 2012 campaign cycle.
Adelson, a casino mogul, gained particular notice in 2012 for his eye-popping contributions to super PACs, or committees that work independently of a candidate but often support them or oppose their competitors.
Adelson gave $30 million to a Romney-aligned super PAC in 2012. Earlier in the campaign, he gave $15 million to a super PAC aligned with Newt Gingrich.
Adelson and his family have contributed significantly to Walker and Wisconsin Republicans over the years.
Shortly before the 2014 election, Adelson gave $650,000 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin. The Adelsons also gave $280,000 directly to Walker’s campaign between the 2012 recall election and the 2014 campaign.
Progressive groups such as One Wisconsin Now want to highlight those ties.
The group released a statement Monday with a Nevada progressive group, Battle Born Progress, dubbing Walker “Adelson’s Lapdog.”
“Sheldon Adelson has more than rolled the dice with Scott Walker, he’s gone all in,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now.
Whether it’s Adelson or other, less-influential Nevadans, Walker’s remarks Tuesday suggest they’ll see much more of him in coming months.
“We want to build a grassroots organization here in this state that can help us win both early on (in the caucuses) and in the fall of 2016,” Walker said.