Why Scott Walker was smart to skip CPAC

Wannabe presidential candidates are parading through the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, trying to woo the activist base of the Republican party. One face is noticeably absent -- that of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.


Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker addresses hundreds of school officials and school board members gathered in Milwaukee in January.  (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Michael Sears)

What gives? Why did Walker take a pass on, arguably, the first major cattle call of the 2016 election?  The stated reason was that he had events in his home state.  There are plenty of other reasons, though -- all of them smart from a political perspective -- for why the Wisconsin governor stayed away. Here are four.

1. Scott Walker 2014

Before Walker can (or should) think about running for the presidency, he needs to win re-election to his seat in Wisconsin. Although Wisconsin often votes Democratic, Walker became the first governor to win a recall in 2012, beating his opponent by 7 percent. He has faced a series of investigations the past few months but his approval ratings are at 53 percent and he has a reliable set of donors acquired during his fight with unions and the recall. Going to CPAC puts every Republican politician in danger of saying something damaging, and Walker doesn't have wiggle room to flub. If he does win in November, he'll get to show off a trend of winning in a state that has voted Democratic in the past six presidential cycles, a potential expansion of the electoral map his party badly needs.

2. CPAC is designed to give lesser known conservatives a chance to shine. Walker had his moment.

The politicians most excited to attend CPAC are the ones hoping to catch fire in the ten minutes (or so) they have to address the crowd. CPAC is for the Tim Scotts and the Ted Cruzes (circa 2010 and 2011) of the party, not for people who already managed to assemble the entire infrastructure of the Republican campaign machine behind them, donors and organizers and ad makers included, for a high profile fight with labor unions, as Scott Walker has already done. At last year's CPAC, he came in sixth place in the straw poll, beating neurosurgeon Ben Carson by 1 percent. The results shows how the straw poll (especially in non-presidential election years) is a measure of how much conservatives liked the speeches they heard that weekend, rather than any really indication of who the most popular candidate might be. Conservatives know who Walker is, and they don't need a reminder of that two years away from the primaries.

3. There's nothing wrong with being mysterious two years out from a presidential contest

See Barack Obama. The problem that any Republican candidate will have in 2016 is the same one Republican candidates have had the past two election cycles -- they have to be cozy enough with the conservative base to squeak out a nomination, but not so cozy that they alienate themselves from the general electorate. Being a devoted CPAC attendee is not the best way to strike that balance. Taking a break every few years to see what it feels like in the CPAC peanut gallery -- like Chris Christie did last year and Jeb Bush does nearly every year -- is healthy, politically speaking.

4. Going to CPAC = being in the media spotlight

Yes, CPAC is a chance for lesser-known conservatives to make a name for themselves and build some buzz. But, it's also a place literally teeming with national reporters -- many of whom are watching every word, hand gesture and response from the crowd for signals as to whether you are connecting (or not).  By staying away, Walker avoids that judgment-fest.

Must-reads:

"Behind the scenes at CPAC: Conservative stars mingle in the green room" -- Robert Costa, The Washington Post

"Crimea sets referendum on joining Russia" -- Carol Morello and Anthony Faiola, The Washington Post

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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