WASHINGTON—Scott Walker and Rick Perry entered the 2016 presidential race with a combined 18 years of experience as governors. They exited the Republican primary— the first candidates to do so—with negligible support and dwindling bank accounts.
While Walker and Perry were both flawed candidates, their swift demise is a warning to others who hope to win the White House on the strength of their political résumés. And it leaves the governors and senators still in the turbulent Republican race scrambling to adapt to a political environment that is rewarding those with the least governing experience.
“The country is very unhappy now, and a winning candidate must be viewed as a change agent,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist who advises the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
So far, billionaire Donald Trump has been the biggest beneficiary of the public’s demand for an outsider. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina are also attracting voters eager to express their anger with Washington. None of the three has ever won an election.
Republicans voters’ apparent desire for a political novice is striking given that conservatives have long attributed some of what they see as President Barack Obama’s weaknesses to his inexperience when he took office. Obama spent a little less than eight years as an Illinois state senator and ran for president during his first term in the U.S. Senate.
As traditional candidates among the current GOP contenders try to break through, they’re employing a two-track strategy: distance themselves from Washington’s political elite while also building a campaign that can outlast voters’ discontent if the anti-establishment mood ultimately fades.
In the hours after Walker’s stunning withdrawal Monday, his experienced rivals intensified efforts to pitch themselves as Washington outsiders and political disruptors.
“You cannot say that Scott Walker, Rick Perry, or myself were insiders in Washington,” said Jeb Bush, the former two-term Florida governor who is also the son and brother of presidents.
Advisers for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a second-term governor and long-serving congressman, touted his efforts to challenge the status quo and even his own party. Kasich has pushed the GOP to do more to address poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction, and he created an alternative to party leaders’ spending plans while serving in Congress.
“You can either say you’re a change agent and have nothing to show for it but talk, or you can say you’re a change agent and have proof and results that have worked,” Kasich spokesman Scott Milburn said.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul casts himself as “a new kind of Republican,” one who courts younger voters and minorities. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has infuriated GOP leaders during his two and a half years in Congress. And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio jumped at the opportunity to distance himself from Congress during last week’s Republican debate.
“In my years in the Senate, I’ve figured out very quickly that the political establishment in Washington, D.C., in both political parties is completely out of touch with the lives of our people,” Rubio said. “That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate.”
The success of anti-establishment candidates isn’t lost on Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. On Sunday, the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state tried to pitch herself as an outsider, too.
“I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president,” Clinton said in an interview with CBS’ “Face The Nation.”
Walker’s campaign, however, serves as a cautionary tale for experienced candidates trying to earn outsider bona fides. As Walker grappled for ways to save his candidacy, he denied he was a career politician—despite having been in elected office for 22 years.
Advisers to several GOP campaigns said they expect voters to ultimately gravitate toward experienced candidates as next year’s early primaries and caucuses draw near. Unlike Walker and Perry, who struggled to build sustainable campaigns, some of the more traditional candidates are banking on building organizations that will still be standing if the electorate’s mood does indeed shift.
For Bush, that means having money—and lots of it. The former Florida governor raised $120 million for his super PAC and campaign in the first half of the year, vastly more than any of his rivals.
Bush’s financial stability has already allowed him to pour $24 million into television advertising in early voting states.
Rubio’s strategy is to run a lean campaign through the fall, expending as little money as possible on staff, travel, and advertisements until the early primaries draw closer.
“We’ve run such a lean campaign at times, taken knocks for it,” said Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager. “But keeping control of the budget is such an important thing.”
Rubio’s strategy is driven in part by necessity. His campaign and outside groups supporting his candidacy have raised about one-third of Bush’s totals.
Still, Rubio’s advisers point to Walker’s financial woes as validation. Walker built a large network of staff and consultants, but quickly burned through the money he needed to keep the expensive organization afloat.