This past February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rolled up his sleeves, clipped on a lavalier microphone, and without the aid of a teleprompter gave the speech of his life. He emerged from that early GOP cattle call as a front-runner for his party’s nomination for president. Numerous polls this spring placed him several points ahead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those same polls showed him with an even more substantial lead over movement conservative favorites such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee. In late April, the Koch brothers hinted that Walker would be the likely recipient of the nearly $900 million they plan to spend on the 2016 election cycle.
The source of Walker’s appeal—his singular calling card, in fact—is not hard to identify. In 2011, the governor signed legislation stripping most of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions of their rights to collective bargaining and to require dues from members, essentially busting those unions. He went on to survive a bitter 2012 recall effort backed by national unions and to win reelection in 2014 in a state Barack Obama won in 2012. He then signed “right-to-work” legislation that massively undercut the state’s dwindling private-sector unions, too. In his twenty-minute CPAC speech, Walker referred to his battles with labor six times directly and as many times indirectly. It is the core of his message.
It is hard to exaggerate the attractiveness of that message to Republican voters. Back in the day, progressive Republicans like Wisconsin’s own Senator and Governor Robert La Follette championed the labor movement, but today’s GOP is overwhelmingly hostile to unions. Only 44 percent of moderate-to-liberal Republicans, and 23 percent of conservative Republicans, have a favorable view of labor unions, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, 70 percent of moderate-to-conservative Democrats and 80 percent of liberal Democrats rate unions favorably. Union support is one of the biggest wedge issues.