Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was getting an in-depth debriefing about his campaign’s finances, and the situation was grim.
In a little more than two months, his presidential bid had amassed a debt of roughly $700,000, campaign manager Rick Wiley told the governor in a call Sunday night. A pared-down effort focused on staying afloat in Iowa would still cost around $1 million a month because of ongoing costs associated with ballot access, accounting and vendor contracts.
“It’s going to be tough to raise that million a month, I’ll be honest with you,” Wiley said he told Walker, according to an account he gave The Washington Post on Tuesday evening.
He said the governor’s response was calm: “OK, thank you for the information.”
But by the next day, after meeting with campaign chairman Michael W. Grebe at the Governor’s Mansion, Walker had come to a decision: He was quitting the race.
His poll numbers had cratered and donors were clamoring for a campaign shake-up. Walker had begun to doubt whether he could break through the cacophony created by Donald Trump, according to people familiar with his decision.
After Grebe walked through the depth of the campaign’s budgetary problems, Walker and his wife went upstairs and spoke briefly with their two college-age sons, Matt and Alex. When the governor came back downstairs, he was resolute — it was over.
“He said that he won’t run a deficit campaign,” said a Republican with direct knowledge of the meeting, who, as with others interviewed for this article, spoke under the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Walker’s sudden decision left his staff dazed and floored his donors, who learned from news reports that he was dropping out. But it underscored Walker’s practical nature, as well as his tendency to function as his own political strategist.
“He clearly decided that the golden ring was not going to be achieved,” said Virginia home developer Bob Pence, who had planned to hold a fundraiser for him in Georgetown on Friday. “I think he’s such a pragmatic guy that he came to know what he had to do. Once he thought he couldn’t proceed to victory . . . he had to exit.”
In the aftermath of Walker’s 70-day roller coaster of a campaign, a behind-the-scenes debate has erupted over the financial management of his bid and whether the governor was fully informed of the problems.
In interviews, more than a dozen allies and donors said Walker was poorly served by Wiley, who rapidly built out a staff across the country of more than 90. Supporters complained that the campaign had an infrastructure better suited to an actual presidential nominee, including high-priced consultants and a full-time photographer who was hired to travel with the candidate.
“Under the national campaign strategy that Wiley had built up, you couldn’t sustain it,” said one major Walker fundraiser. “They needed to run a much smaller, outsider-style campaign.”
Wiley strongly disputed the notion that he allowed the campaign’s spending to get out of control. “I think everyone needs to put in perspective that in order to get someone prepared to run for president of the United States, you need staff,” he said in the interview. “I don’t think we grew too quickly. I don’t buy that. I think every person on this campaign served a specific role to make sure the governor was ready.”
“We didn’t have a spending problem,” Wiley added. “We had a revenue problem.”
Donations began dwindling in mid-August after Walker’s tentative performance in the first Republican debate, according to several people familiar with the figures. The campaign tried to ramp up fundraising over Labor Day, with a series of events that officials hoped would bring in $500,000. In the end, they netted $184,000, Wiley said.
At that point, he said, both he and Grebe warned Walker that the campaign’s finances were slipping.
“We are taking huge hits,” Wiley said he told Walker. “We are going to have to shed staff. We are going to have to shed expenses.”
There was plenty of money socked away at Unintimidated PAC, the pro-Walker super PAC run by Walker allies, which was on its way to raising $40 million. But since the group could not directly coordinate its spending with Walker’s campaign, its resources were of little use.
“You have to have enough fuel in the tank to run a basic operation,” said one Walker ally.
Efforts to tap into Walker’s small-donor base fell flat. In one case, one piece of direct mail ended up costing more than it brought in.
Earlier this month, department heads were called to Madison for meetings and told that spending was far outpacing donations, according to a person close to the campaign. Each was asked to compile a list of places where they could cut. “There were a lot of jaws that hit the floor,” said the person familiar with the meetings.
On Sept. 13 — three days before the second GOP debate — Wiley said he told Walker he was putting together a plan to retrench to Iowa. “He knew we certainly were burning fumes,” Wiley said. “There’s no doubt about that. “
Then came the three-hour forum at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Walker was more assertive than he had been in the first GOP debate but still logged the least amount of airtime. It was not the breakthrough moment supporters had hoped to see.
Major bundlers began agitating for a change in leadership and pushing for Wiley to get replaced.
“Donors were balking,” said one Republican familiar with internal conversations. “There was an acknowledgment that something needed to change.”
But on a conference call Thursday with his major financial backers, Walker did not announce any personnel changes. He struck an upbeat tone, saying the campaign had a plan to win by investing in Iowa.
There was little indication that he would be out of the race days later.
On Monday, donors from throughout the country were gathering in Indianapolis, where Walker was set to hold a fundraiser that night. Campaign finance co-chair Todd Ricketts held a conference call with supporters in New York who were organizing a finance event to be held Thursday at the home of his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.
Meanwhile, Grebe, the campaign chairman, had pulled together his own rough accounting of the campaign’s debt. Initially, his plan was to take stock of the finances, downsize and move forward, but the size of the fiscal hole took him aback, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Grebe laid out the details Monday morning to Walker, his wife, Tonette, and a handful of loyalists at the Governor’s Mansion, according to people familiar with the session. Wiley was not included. “The picture was much worse than a lot of people in the room had originally believed,” said one person with knowledge of the meeting. “Madison was spending a lot of money.”
The $1 million monthly price tag for a scaled-back budget was particularly alarming. Grebe warned Walker that it was not sustainable.
The governor — who made a show of his frugal lifestyle — was averse to taking on more debt. His instincts were reinforced by Tonette Walker, perhaps his closest adviser. “He bounces things off her, and he always gets an honest answer,” said a friend of the couple. “And, the honest answer was: It’s time to get out.”
After breaking the news to his aides, he wrote his own statement and had an advisory sent out announcing a news conference later Monday. Most of his top supporters and staff members were not alerted ahead of time.
An hour before he was set to go before the cameras, Walker had a conference call with staff members and a few key supporters and told them he was suspending his campaign. Staffers were paid through Tuesday.
Walker’s decision was not a complete surprise to many, but it was frustrating given his early promise. “It’s one thing to lose at the ballots,” said one person close to the campaign. “It’s another to never get to the ballots.”
Mary Jordan and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.