Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced his exit from the 2016 presidential race on Monday while calling on the Republican field to abandon "personal attacks" and offer a more upbeat message.
"Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field," Walker said in a brief appearance in Madison, Wisconsin, announcing his decision. "With this in mind I will suspend my campaign immediately."
Walker went on to encourage other Republican candidates to drop out so voters can "focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current frontrunner," Donald Trump, whose name Walker did not mention. Trump and Walker clashed in Wednesday's debate, with Walker attacking Trump's lack of political experience and business record and Trump arguing that Walker had mismanaged Wisconsin's budget and economy.
"When the people of Iowa found that out, I went to No. 1 and you went down the tubes," Trump said. He extended an olive branch as Walker left the race, however, tweeting before the announcement that Walker was "a very nice person" with a "great future."
A big money super PAC supporting Walker, Unintimidated PAC, announced it would "wind down" its operations as well and return donations to supporters.
For Walker, the premature exit marks a stunning fall from grace for a candidate who just months ago was a considered a top contender for the Republican nomination. The governor led polls of GOP voters nationally after a series of strong speeches early in the year and was the front-runner in the crucial first caucus state of Iowa as late as July. At his peak, Walker confidently predicted that his quiet style, conservative record, and blue collar roots would resonate with fellow Midwesterners in Iowa, where he was partially raised as the son of a small town pastor.
Instead he was supplanted by Trump, a billionaire braggart with a thick New York accent, a history of liberal views, and little interest in religion.
Walker's standing eroded as he struggled through weak debate performances, a series of awkward policy questions, and ceded ground to outsiders like Trump and Ben Carson among conservatives. He hit his low point on Sunday when CNN released a post-debate poll finding his national support among Republicans had virtually disappeared with less than 0.5% of respondents identifying him as their choice for the nomination.
There was no one scandal or signature moment that precipitated the collapse. After winning early praise for his conservative record in Wisconsin, especially his battles with public sector unions and recall victory, he struggled to discuss national issues outside his usual wheelhouse as a presidential contender. He earned criticism from the right for his foreign policy stumbles, which included comparing his labor battles to combatting ISIS, and struggled to manage issues like immigration, where he abandoned his earlier support for path to citizenship and gave inconsistent answers on hot button issues like birthright citizenship. The candidate who seemed best positioned to unite the party's establishment, tea party, and social conservative wings failed to consolidate support with any of them. As Trump, Carson, and later Carly Fiorina earned boosts from the debates, Walker demoralized supporters and donors with subdued performances.
Republican strategist Liz Mair, who was briefly hired by Walker before being forced out over her criticism of Iowa's role in the nominating process, listed an array of causes to Walker's demise on Twitter, including "misunderstanding the GOP base, its priorities and stances," "pandering," and "flip-flopping."
The departure of Walker sent other candidates scrambling to poach his donors, endorsements, and staff. Ohio Gov. John Kasich's campaign staff told NBC News that he had reached out to Walker and his supporters in the hopes that the candidates' shared experience as Midwestern governors might make for a good fit. According to Republican campaign sources, a number of former Walker staffers and allies were already in the process of reaching out to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign when Walker dropped out, and are now making the switch to supporting his team.
Even before Walker's official announcement, his campaign's New Hampshire co-chair, Cliff Hurst, announced he would take a similar position with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's state campaign. A number of Republicans and conservatives suggested on Monday that Rubio stood to benefit from Walker's exit -- the governor himself often named him as his top vice presidential choice.
"We need everybody not named Marco to fizzle," Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan said at a conference hosted by National Review and Google shortly after Walker's departure became public. Walker campaign manager Rick Wiley was set to speak at the same event, but did not participate in light of the news.