This was supposed to be the cycle of the Deep Republican Bench. In the past two presidential cycles, especially in 2012, Republicans lacked fresh and proven talent to bid for the White House. In both cycles, we saw the Next In Line candidate prevail over a field dominated by offbeat candidacies, with predictable results. The 2016 field, with several two-term (or more) governors and a youth movement in the Senate was supposed to be different. The sheer talent of the field would focus Republican voters on the new generation of outside-the-Beltway talent.
Or so we thought. The one GOP contender who had made a national splash started off leading the field, but over the last month or so, Scott Walker has faded as three unconventional candidates now dominate the field. In my column for The Week, I mainly focus on Walker, but the question can be applied more broadly. What happened to the Deep Republican Bench?
Walker has disappeared into the ranks of the also-rans. Trump and Carson now tie at 23 percent, and Carly Fiorina has moved up to third place with 10 percent. None of these three have ever won public office before, and yet 56 percent of Monmouth University respondents chose them over the deep Republican bench of 2016. The most dramatic reversal in the poll was Walker’s, whose support plummeted from 22 percent to 7 percent. Combined, the entire GOP bench of currently elected officials only garnered 29 percent — barely more than half of the majority siding with that trio of newcomers.
This is not an isolated phenomenon for Walker. In the spring and into early summer, his national polling average at Real Clear Politics put him in the mid-teens. After peaking at 17.3 percent in April — when Walker led the field — the Wisconsin governor who fought the unions and won has bled out quickly. Other than a brief spike in July, it’s been all downhill, culminating in this week’s brutal 6.7 percent rating, only good enough for a distant fifth place behind Trump, Carson, Bush, and Cruz. In the Hot Air-Townhall Media Group national online poll, Walker barely registered, only getting 1.3 percent of 469 Republican respondents.
Walker at least had shown some strength early in the summer. The rest of the field has not had as much success. That may be in part because of a combination of Walker’s impressive track record on the conservative agenda in Wisconsin, his triumph over a concerted effort by the Left to kill his political career, and his strong start in Iowa in January. Whatever the reason, Walker’s decline mirrors that of the other members of the new Republican generation:
In short, Walker checked all the boxes that Republicans wanted after a disappointing loss in 2012. And it turns out that none of that mattered as much to Republicans three years later as putting a thumb in the eye of the party’s establishment. Voters are turning to outsiders in a reaction to a lack of action, real or perceived, from the Republican Party after winning two midterm elections.
It’s a mistake to lay all of this off on an angry base, who were just as unhappy in April as they are now. Some of the fade reflects Walker’s unsteady campaign performance, and the missed opportunities of the Fox News debate But the emergence of outsiders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina give those voters an opportunity to vent that even the rising outsiders within the gubernatorial and senatorial ranks seemingly do not provide.
Mike Flynn of Breitbart thinks the debate was the inflection point:
Walker’s fade is a bit harder to understand. A sitting Governor of a swing state, he had accomplished a host of very conservative reforms in a state that was not necessarily inured to them. He stood up to a very powerful public sector and overcame opposition from within his own Republican party to push the envelope on reform. He won three statewide elections in four years. Walker also has a compelling personal story that is the opposite of the resume of the political class.
Yet, on the trail he underwhelms. His performance in the first GOP debate was forgettable. He relied on canned talking points at the exact moment voters were most interested in authenticity. Another governor, John Kasich, improbably out-shined him. Kasich has many unconservative positions, but he comes across as a real human being, instead of a political candidate. Walker looked as if he had been debate-prepped into wallpaper.
There is still plenty of time for all of the new generation of contenders to regain some momentum. Walker probably has the best opportunity to do so, given the same qualities both Mike and I highlight. It may take Republicans in Congress to light some fires in order to help out the traditional candidates in the fall, though, or the GOP primary may come down to which outsider voters trust most to give the Republican Party a swift kick in the rear end.