Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has the power to end the famed Iowa presidential straw poll before it begins on Aug. 8 — and is thinking of doing just that, The Washington Times has learned.
Also poised to skip the event is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who enjoys significant support from Iowa supporters of his father, Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman who missed first place in the poll by only 152 votes in 2011, Republicans involved told The Times.
The same is true for Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, considered a potential magnet for Hispanic voters and who, like Mr. Walker and Mr. Paul, did not bother to send a representative to an informational and organizing meeting held by the Iowa GOP on Thursday.
Mr. Walker, the conservative movement’s chief pulse-quickener, began thinking of nixing the once-venerable straw poll after GOP establishment candidate Jeb Bush, in a wily move that diminished the value of the poll for Mr. Walker, said he will skip the event in favor of a South Carolina cattle call. Further diminishing the nonbinding straw poll, evangelical stalwart Mike Huckabee said he too has more rewarding ways to spend his time and campaign contributions than on the poll.
Several former top Iowa GOP officials said privately that if Mr. Walker walks on the Aug. 8 event, it’s “dead.”
Once the first early winnower of the GOP field, this year’s straw poll is falling victim to the large cast of candidates and the lack of a clear front-runner, leaving most of the hopefuls within striking distance of the lead worried about failing to meet expectations.
Mr. Walker, playing it as coy as a Madison cloakroom card sharp, won’t say he will enter the straw poll and won’t say he won’t.
“He is not a candidate and hasn’t made a decision about his future, so the decision to participate in the straw poll will come down to the line,” said an aide to Mr. Walker. The aide said the governor will not officially announce a decision until his legislature finishes haggling over a budget, most probably at the end of June.
As for Mr. Paul, since the press and pundits are likely to say anything short of a win would be a loss for the Kentucky senator, he figures that spending $1 million or $2 million to place second behind Mr. Walker wouldn’t be worth the effort or the risk. So barring something unforeseen, Mr. Paul is poised to blow off the poll the second Mr. Walker does.
Mr. Rubio is also looking for a way out, but he too doesn’t want to get tagged as the straw poll killer, Republicans close to the action say.
If somehow all that doesn’t sink the poll, virtually all concerned say that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, in the absence of the top-tier candidates, will wind up winning and claim credit for saving the poll. He and Mr. Paul can also claim credit as the only two claimants to conservatism’s mantle who have stood fast in not supporting federal taxpayer ethanol subsidies for Iowa’s corn farmers.
Another unintended threat to the straw poll’s existence comes with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s June 6 fundraiser, which already has commitments from more 2016 hopefuls than may show up for the Aug. 8 straw poll.
Surgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Walker are confirmed speakers. The candidates will have tents and entertainment; there will be games for children and adults; candidates will join in roasting hogs for the hungry.
But it’s not expected to draw the 16,000 to 20,000 partisans that the straw poll has attracted as the most fun-filled, all-day GOP event in presidential election cycles since the poll’s inception in 1979.
The poll has been in wobbly shape for more than a year. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad first said it has outlived its usefulness, then said if the Iowa GOP moves the site from Ames, the university town with capacious, air-conditioned but expensive facilities, to the cheap but out-of-the-way Boone site, he’d support keeping the poll.
Unmoved by the change, Mr. Bush said he’ll skip the poll to attend a candidate cattle call in South Carolina instead.
Mr. Huckabee said he won’t show because “this year’s Iowa straw poll will serve only to weaken conservative candidates and further empower the Washington ruling class and their handpicked candidates.”
As for Mr. Walker, he must wait until he officially announces his campaign to start raising “hard” dollars under federal campaign finance rules to plow into hiring paid staff, training volunteers for organizing in Iowa’s 99 counties, identifying his probable voters, chartering fleets of buses to get them to the straw poll at the out-of-the-way Boone County farm exposition center and renting a huge — and hugely expensive — air-conditioned food and entertainment tent.
Though GOP operatives think it unlikely, several factors could nudge Mr. Walker toward sticking with the poll, including the chance to cash in on his position switch earlier this year, when he abandoned his long-held opposition to taxpayer subsidies for ethanol production. Ethanol is nearly sacrosanct in Iowa, and Mr. Walker’s sacrifice of free market principles will yield him no payoff if he doesn’t attend the straw poll.
What’s more, his triggering the collapse of the straw poll could deeply annoy Mr. Branstad and the Iowa political machine, whose help Mr. Walker may need next year when the votes really count at the Iowa caucuses — the first-in-the-nation nominating contest.
“He needs the ‘Walker wins straw poll’ headline for grass-roots voters,” said Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who ran as a Democrat but is a philosophical conservative who backs Mr. Walker. “His switch on ethanol caught conservatives by surprise.”