Controlling the bruising battle for the GOP nomination in 2016 has proven a dizzying and elusive task for not only the national GOP Establishment, but also for the provincial leaders of the party in key primary states. The governors (several very popular at home) who have weighed in on the GOP contest in their states have, for the most part, seen their influence amount to little impact.
So can Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s endorsement of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, which he announced Tuesday morning, lock up the Badger State victory for Cruz? Probably not.
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The first fight in the GOP race saw Gov. Terry Bransted, the chief protector of all things corn, wage a determined effort to steer voters in Iowa to any candidate other than Ted Cruz.
“It would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him,” Branstad said in a CNN interview about Cruz. “And I know he’s ahead in the polls, but the only poll that counts is the one they take on caucus night, and I think that could change between now and then.”
Cruz ultimately won the Iowa caucus, giving him a powerful new talking point about standing up to the ethanol subsidies lobby and still winning the Hawkeye State.
In the wake of Bransted’s embarrassing lack of impact in his own state, it was national GOP favorite South Carolina Governor Nikki Hayley’s turn to step into the limelight.
Rather than just campaign against one candidate, Hayley went all-out for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Hayley barnstormed the state with Rubio and did dozens of media hits as a surrogate for Rubio. The endorsement from the South Carolina governor, seen by many as a rising GOP star, was thought to be a game changer for Rubio. The Washington Post ran a headline on February 17, entitled: “Why Nikki Hayley’s endorsement is so good for Marco Rubio.” Among other things, the story cited a poll from Winthrop University that gave Hayley an 81 percent approval rating among Republicans in the state.
Rubio ultimately came in a deep second place to Donald Trump in South Carolina, barely edging out Ted Cruz for the silver by .2 percent.
Three weeks later it was Cruz who lost a state with the support of the incumbent governor, going down in Mississippi by 11 points to Trump, after Gov. Phil Bryant endorsed Cruz’s bid.
The phenomenon has not been confined to rivals of Trump. Maine’s bombastic Gov. Paul LePage, a hero among the pull-no-punches crowd in the state, endorsed the GOP front-runner 8 days before the Maine caucuses — a contest Cruz ultimately won in an upset.
Walker, and his endorsee, will be trying to break an emerging pattern from the string of contests in New England, the South, and the Midwest of the outcome coming out on the opposite side of the presiding governors.
Walker will be further hindered in the effort by one of the lowest approval ratings of his administration. A Marquette University Law School poll conducted last month found Walker underwater, with 55 percent of Wisconsin voters holding an unfavorable perception of the job he was doing, and just 39 percent approving of his handling of the state’s affairs.
Of course, whether Walker’s support amounts to little in the way of a Cruz boost won’t mean the Texas senator won’t take Wisconsin. Cruz leads the most recent polls of voters in the state and has strong fundamentals in Wisconsin’s particular corner of the midwest.
Cruz can take further comfort in the fact that Walker’s support is, at the very least, unlikely to do him any harm. Unlike the support of Establishment figures reviled in the grassroots, such as Jeb Bush or Lindsey Graham, Walker retains a fairly affable relationship with the base; Cruz will certainly earn a slew of positive headlines from the endorsement.
In the case of having Scott Walker’s endorsement vs. not, it will be better to have it than to go without, even if the impact is minimal.