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Scott Walker’s collapse shows the limits of big money

Scott WalkerScott Walker
Scott WalkerPhotograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Scott Walker’s presidential dreams may be dead. But the hopes of his billionaire backers will live on in other candidates.

The Wisconsin governor abruptly ended his bid on Monday in part because his campaign cash was drying up. And yet he had one of the better-funded Super PACs in the field. That outside account, established to collect huge-dollar checks supporting his candidacy, had pulled in more than $20 million by mid-summer, when it last reported its finances.

But the two accounts couldn’t coordinate their efforts with each other — one of the few restrictions left under our new campaign finance regime. So despite the riches stashed away in the Super PAC, Walker’s struggle to raise small-dollar contributions for his official account, which supported a sprawling campaign staff, finally caught up with him.

Now, the super-rich donors who funneled all that money to the Super PAC, called Unintimidated PAC, will be getting a chunk of their contributions returned. (Those operating the account have pledged refunds, though it’s not clear in what amount, since it also isn’t known how much cash is left). And those conservative bankrollers are back on the market for rival candidates who remain in the hunt.

Most appear inclined to take a wait-and-see approach rather than throwing in wholesale for another contender. The Ricketts family, for example — whose patriarch, Joe, founded TD Ameritrade, while his son, Todd, served as Walker’s national finance co-chairman — look poised to reevaluate a handful of other candidates, according to one GOP strategist. That list includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, all candidates the Ricketts have indicated a willingness to support by cutting checks to their Super PACs. And while the Chicago-based family may have hedged already, Walker was clearly its first choice: Joe’s wife, Marlene, contributed $5 million to Unintimidated, tying her with Wisconsin businesswoman Diane Hendricks as the fund’s biggest benefactor.

Likewise, Houston Texans owner Robert McNair had contributed $500,000 to Walker’s Super PAC — but gave the same amount to the funds supporting Bush, Cruz, and South Carolina Sen. Linsdey Graham. Bush could claim an inside edge, considering the long friendship McNair has maintained with his father, the former president. A McNair spokesman declined to comment.

Perhaps oddly missing from those lists is the other Midwestern governor in the race, Ohio’s John Kasich, positioned at least to make an appeal to Walker’s moneymen. Kasich has a bumpy history with the fundraising network maintained by the Koch brothers, who’ve committed to remaining neutral in the primary though they favored Walker early. But for donors looking for a candidate with general-election appeal, Kasich should earn another look now that Walker is out.

In the end, however, Walker’s most important gift to his rivals may be a cautionary tale. He becomes the second candidate in this cycle (after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry) to flame out prematurely despite a heavily funded outside group. In a campaign once shaping up as a big-money scramble, the primacy of grassroots appeal is proving surprisingly durable.

For more on the Republican presidential race, watch this Fortune video: