OKLAHOMA CITY — The preacher's son laughed and joked as he took a seat among the biggest players in Oklahoma politics, some of whom paid $10,000 to break bread with their conservative hero and get a photo snapped.
It was just another day on the road for Scott Walker. A year after his showdown with labor protesters, the Wisconsin governor has become one of the most sought-after figures in the Republican Party, keeping a jet-setting travel schedule more akin to a presidential candidate than a governor trying to survive a recall challenge.
"He's exactly what this country needs in terms of leadership," said banker Bob Emery of Enid, Okla., who was seated at a nearby table, clearly in awe. "The courage he has had ... is what wells up in me. The man is absolutely doing what he believes in."
Walker now regularly huddles with the wealthy and the famous. He attended a Christmas party thrown by Grover Norquist, the conservative power broker, and raised money with Hank Greenberg, founder and former CEO of American International Group, at his Manhattan office.
Last week, he mingled with Oklahoma's corporate elite and top Republicans at a fundraiser co-sponsored by Koch Industries, the oil company led by billionaire brothers who are top backers of conservative causes nationwide. Also in attendance were executives from Devon Energy Corp., which is building a 50-story tower that is changing the Oklahoma City skyline.
As Walker stares down a June 5 recall election, he has used his cachet as a conservative hero to rake in campaign cash never before seen in Wisconsin. And it's put his Democratic challengers at a disadvantage in their effort to make him only the third governor in the nation's history to be ousted in a recall.
"He has become something of a rock star nationally for right-wing conservatives," said Mike McCabe, director of the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "There's appeal there, and I think he's found it pretty easy to get people to crack their checkbooks."
Texas financier Bob Perry cut Walker two $250,000 checks and is his single biggest donor. Perry helped pay for the Swift Boat Veterans ads that attacked Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign.
Those weren't the only huge checks. Three prominent Missouri home builders and contractors each gave Walker $250,000.
And Michael Bidwill, president of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and a frequent donor to Republican candidates nationwide, contributed $25,000. But that didn't even make him one of Walker's top 30 contributors.
Fourteen of Walker's top 20 donors are from outside Wisconsin, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Nine people gave $100,000 or more, including Wyoming Republican Foster Friess, who heavily backed Rick Santorum's presidential campaign.
The Oklahoma event, co-sponsored by Koch Industries, Devon Energy and other conservative heavy hitters, was a fundraiser for a think tank aligned with the Heritage Foundation. Participants paid up to $10,000 per table for premium seating and a chance for a photo opportunity with Walker.
Republican Oklahoma state Sen. David Holt, who has sponsored changes to the state's binding arbitration laws that benefit municipalities, was thrilled to meet Walker.
"I sure hope that he survives the recall in Wisconsin, because that will send a signal to all of us that we can do this and we can survive politically," Holt said.
Walker is getting similar reactions all across the country. He's been to California, New York, Texas, Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida just to name a few. On Friday, he was in St. Louis to receive the National Rifle Association's Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award, the highest honor conferred by the gun-rights group.
Walker got loud cheers and a standing ovation both when he was introduced and when he completed his speech. As he approached the podium, a woman yelled out, "We're with you, Scott!" He replied, "We're with you too."
All of the traveling helped him raise $12.1 million between January 2011 and mid-January of this year. That is the most ever raised by a candidate for state office in Wisconsin, breaking the record Walker himself set by raising $10 million on his way to victory in 2010.
"We've never seen this kind of thing before in living memory," McCabe said. "There's no precedent for it. We've never seen this much outside money in state elections in Wisconsin."
McCabe predicts the total amount spent on the recall election will be between $60 million and $80 million, shattering the previous record of about $37 million from the 2010 governor's race Walker won.
While Walker is tapping a national fundraising base, it's not so easy knowing where he has been, where he is or where he plans to go. His campaign refuses to release his private schedule, saying it is under no obligation to do so.
Deputy Campaign Manager Dan Blum did not respond to a question asking why Walker was spending so much time out of state when he faces a recall. Walker downplayed his out-of-state travels during a stop in Oconomowoc, Wis., on Wednesday.
"It's just a small factor," he said. "In the last month I've made hundreds of stops. Only a fraction have been in neighboring states. Overwhelmingly it's in the state of Wisconsin."
Walker said his travels allow him to spread his message to people who may be interested in investing and creating jobs in Wisconsin.
Part of the problem with publicizing his schedule is that protesters tend to follow wherever he goes.
Union organizers claimed victory after Walker canceled an appearance at a November fundraiser in Wichita, Kan., with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Walker would not say why he backed out, but unions said their promise of having thousands of protesters there scared him away. Still, the governor was undeterred by about 200 protesters who lined the streets outside the Oklahoma City event.
During a Tuesday visit to Springfield, Ill., Walker was confronted by an estimated 4,000 demonstrators, many of them union members from Chicago and elsewhere.
One of them held a sign that said, "Go back to Wisconsin. Oh, wait they don't want you either."
Bauer reported from Madison, Wis. Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger in Oconomowoc, Wis., Jim Salter in St. Louis and John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., also contributed to this report.