Scott Walker's exit sets off Republican feeding frenzy

Story highlights

  • Scott Walker's donors are in demand
  • Campaign had highly regarded operatives in Iowa, New Hampshire
  • Super PAC raised $20 million in first half of 2015

Washington (CNN)Scott Walker didn't tell some of his strongest supporters that his campaign was dead. His rivals did it for him.

The rapid evaporation of the Wisconsin governor's campaign on Monday quickly reshaped the already rollicking Republican presidential primary. Though his White House prospects are dead, Walker's donors and early-state backers are very much in demand. And they're getting a lot of attention.
"It all really started mostly this morning," recalled Cliff Hurst, who began the day as Walker's New Hampshire co-chair and ended it as Marco Rubio's. Hurst had been eyeing the Florida senator for a while and was one of Monday's earliest poaches. "They didn't really need to say a whole lot."
And as the afternoon approached and rumors of Walker's exit began to swirl, Walker national finance co-chairman Anthony Scaramucci found himself on the line with three different presidential candidates who rang his cell phone.
"Politics has a musical chairs component to it," he said. "You have the hourglass of sand and at the end of the day, there's only one seat."
Walker's political support eroded to nearly nothing, with a CNN/ORC national poll on Sunday showing that interest in his candidacy had been extinguished as candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina rose to the top of the fray. But thanks in part to the half year Walker spent as a leading contender and his national exposure from his 2012 recall election, he had the support of many leading Republican donors and operatives.
The candidate's super PAC raised $20 million in the first half of 2015, some of which will be returned to the Republican donors who supported it. At the heart of Walker's financial shop was the Ricketts family - one of the GOP's heavyweight contributors over the past two election cycles. Joe and Marlene Ricketts gave $5 million to the super PAC to run television ads, and their son, Todd Ricketts, was Walker's national finance co-chair.
And Walker has long been seen as a hero in the deep-pocketed political network organized by Charles and David Koch, who personally have pledged not to get involved in the Republican primary but have repeatedly gushed about Walker, who made his name by beating back organized labor. Walker's allies in the Koch network are now up for grabs as well.

Race is on to capture Walker's resources

Stanley Hubbard, a Koch donor who seemed to sour on Walker after what he saw as a second unremarkable Republican debate, has moved on. The day after Walker failed to spark his sagging campaign, Hubbard cut four $2,700 checks to Fiorina, Carson, Rubio and Chris Christie.
"He didn't click on television. He's lacking TV star power," Hubbard said with some exasperation Monday afternoon. Several Walker donors on Monday, including Hubbard, said they learned about Walker's decision from reporters rather than from the candidate himself. "Those people better find different candidates, I guess," Hubbard added.
And they are. Though some GOP donors expressed surprise that Walker had dropped out of the race so early and abruptly, Republican fundraisers listened as rivals made their best pitches. Aimee Locke, a top bundler for Walker in Texas, said she had been contacted by two campaigns in the immediate aftermath of news reports of Walker's decision.
"I don't blame them -- heck, I'd probably do the same thing," Locke explained, adding that she imagines she'll have trouble making her next decision. "For so many months, it's been all about Scott Walker."
Locke said she would likely consider Jeb Bush, Fiorina and Rubio, who several insiders expect to be one of the main winners of Walker's dropout. Rubio and Walker have expressed admiration for one another on the trail -- with Walker even openly floating Rubio as his potential vice president -- and both have tried to bridge the GOP establishment with its more conservative grassroots. Donors see both Rubio and Walker as some of the party's most electable candidates in a general election, and Rubio has emerged as one of the primary field's best fundraisers.
Phil Musser, an unaligned Republican strategist, said he expected donors to nevertheless sit patient for a while.
"Scott Walker has built really deep reservoirs of support around the country," said Musser. "Donors will take their time before falling in love again."

Iowa operation was particularly strong

Walker assembled a stalwart political shop in Iowa, the early-voting state to which he has virtually pinned his political fortunes. One third of the state's senate Republicans had endorsed him, and the consistent winner of Hawkeye State polls had pledged to visit all 99 counties by the time of the caucuses. (His 70-day campaign didn't accomplish that.)
Those state legislators and Iowa operatives are expected to be some of the most sought-after spoils of Walker's collapse. State Rep. Terry Baxter, who had endorsed Walker, threw his support to Bush at an event in Mason City hours after Walker's somber announcement. Ted Cruz, who has seen Walker as a threat in Iowa, sent out a press release Monday evening touting that he plucked three new county co-chairs from Walker's operation. Rubio's campaign boasted picking up five nominations in the state from former Walker supporters.
And it's not just Iowa: Cruz also announced Walker pick ups in Georgia and Nevada, later-voting states where Walker once said his national campaign could compete. Rubio scored Hurst, a longtime Republican activist in New Hampshire, as well as a South Carolina endorsement, and Bush won over former Wisconsin GOP chair Rick Graber.
But most Walker supporters were just trying to make sense of a Monday that they didn't see coming. Phyllis Woods, a former RNC national committeewoman in New Hampshire who was named as a state campaign co-chair for Walker almost exactly a month ago, said the Cruz, Fiorina and Rubio campaigns had reached out. But her mind had been busy inviting people to Walker's town hall in the Granite State on Wednesday -- even as the campaign cratered.
"I was just watching with increasing alarm and dismay," she said.