Will Scott Walker Put His Life on the Line for the Iowa Straw Poll?

There was an eleven-candidate cattle call held in Des Moines over the weekend by the Republican Party of Iowa. Different observers had different takes on who did especially well (a spike in the bizarre Carly Fiorina boom impressed everyone, and probably cheered GOPers hoping she can rise far enough in the polls to lift her naturally over the threshold set for debate participation without artificial assistance).

But the biggest development may have been the proverbial dog that did not bark:

After Jeb Bush announced last week that he was skipping the Straw Poll in order to hang out at Erick Erickson’s RedState Gathering on the same mid-August weekend (earning a public tongue-lashing from the Iowa GOP chair), attention naturally turned to perceived Iowa front-runner Scott Walker, who’s also going to the ErickFest but can probably manage the logistics of attending the Straw Poll as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jebbie’s agents were the ones who created the expectation Walker was going to Save the Straw Poll right there on the stage in Des Moines, shortly after Chuck Grassley made a forlorn pitch for the event’s great relevance.

But it didn’t happen. And now, as Politico‘s Hohmann, Glueck and Stokols explained yesterday, Walker’s in a stragetic dilemma:

Since all of the top tier presidential prospects are waiting to see who will compete before they commit to the straw poll this year, if the Wisconsin governor — and current Iowa front-runner — declines to participate, there’s a good chance Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and other candidates will follow suit.

The result is that the event, an Iowa tradition dating back to 1979, could become a mostly irrelevant contest between longshots and underdogs….

If [Walker] participates and loses, he risks looking like a fading candidate who peaked too soon. But if he plays it safe and skips the straw poll, he could badly alienate Iowa Republicans — more likely than not ending his status as the state’s perceived front-runner. At the same time, if Walker and every other top candidate skipped it, the damage to the 47-year-old governor would be minimal.

So Walker would like to be the last to bow out. But unfortunately, he may not have that luxury. According to most of the Iowa Insiders (don’t know if the term is copyrighted, but it might as well be) that Politico consults, the state’s Republicans have turned their lonely eyes to the Wisconsin governor to save their fundraiser:

Two-thirds of Iowa Republican insiders think Walker should compete in the straw poll, according to this week’s edition of The POLITICO Caucus, a weekly pulse-taking of the most important activists, operatives and elected officials in the early states.

“Participate and you are expected to win, and must win,” said a top Iowa Republican, who is uncommitted and — like all 77 respondents – completed the weekly questionnaire anonymously in order to answer candidly. “Skip, and everyone thinks you’re a coward. Then watch your standing in the Iowa polls continue to drop. Walker needs to suck it up and use the event to cement himself as the frontrunner in the race.”

There is immense pressure from grassroots activists, who love the event and see shying away from it as proof of weakness or aloofness. “To be a frontrunner in Iowa with this standing, Walker needs to demonstrate that he can compete and win in a straw poll,” said another Republican.

The candidate who may be in the catbird seat is Marco Rubio, who is occupying the position Walker probably hoped for earlier in the Invisible Primary: everybody’s second choice who is slowly preparing to leap into the top tier the minute someone else–Scott Walker, perhaps?–stumbles.

As Politico‘s piece notes, Walker’s currently hiding behind his official non-candidacy, which won’t end until the Wisconsin legislative session comes to a close, which will likely be several weeks from now. But every day he waits to make the Straw Poll decision is a day his team doesn’t have to execute the brief but intense turnout effort involved in winning at this event. And for Walker, finishing anything other than first in Boone will in the eyes of Iowans and punditocrats alike send him right back to Pawlentyville.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.