Scott Walker in South Carolina: The Power of Prayer and Kohl's

The Wisconsin governor introduces himself to the all-important Palmetto State
Greg Lacour
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker before a South Carolina Republican Party breakfast in Rock Hill on Friday.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been touring South Carolina in the last couple of days, working the meal-event circuit in Columbia, Greenville, Rock Hill, and Charleston. Walker’s trying to boost his profile in advance of South Carolina’s presidential primary, the first in the South, next February; that’s especially important to him because, of all the potential GOP presidential candidates next year, he’s probably the least-known in the South.

So I was curious to see how Walker would come across to the good folks in Rock Hill on Friday morning during a state GOP breakfast at the Holiday Inn. (I was there on assignment for a wire service.) Mainly, I was curious how a governor from an upper Midwestern state who built his reputation on battling public-sector unions could connect with Republican voters in the Deep South, in a state with no union presence to speak of.

He did it, first, by ratcheting up the God angle (“I can feel the power of your prayers”) and hitting the right notes for a South Carolina crowd: People were largely quiet when he talked about bank regulatory and lawsuit reform but applauded with enthusiasm when he brought up successful right to life legislation, Wisconsin’s new voter ID law, and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Second, he framed his Wisconsin union fight as a righteous stand on behalf of freedom against “disruptive” and “disrespectful” protestors who sought to wrap chains around opportunity itself. “We need to raise the tone and talk about what we’re for and not sink to the level of our opponents,” he told a crowd of about 120. “They were trying to intimidate us. That’s what they do.”

Much of Walker’s 30-minute speech was boilerplate, a standard national Republican’s recitation on the virtues of tax cuts and the free market and the shortcomings of President Obama and Hillary Clinton; he made no mention of any of his potential GOP primary opponents, even Lindsey Graham. But a few things did jump out, and they offered some clues into how the next several months will shape up.

The youth vote: Walker cited his impressive showing among voters aged 18 to 24 in the 2014 Wisconsin gubernatorial election as evidence that young adults are increasingly “global and libertarian,” and receptive to a small-government, free-market candidate. “I think it’s a compelling message for millennials,” he said. “I think it’s a compelling message for America.”

The parable of Kohl’s: This has turned into Walker’s “grew up in a log cabin” story. He talks about looking for the Sunday-insert flier for the Wisconsin-based retailer, offering shirts at 20 or 30 percent off, and how the lesson of Kohl’s informed his low-taxes philosophy: Kohl’s makes its money by cutting prices and selling a higher volume to a broader customer base. “That’s what I think we should do in America,” he said: Cut taxes to put more money in the hands of consumers, in effect “cutting prices” in the giant retail marketplace of the economy.

As practical economics, this is ridiculous—it’s trickle-down with a “SALE!” sticker, the ethos that drives the dollar stores of the world—but as political self-definition, it’s brilliant. Heads in the Rock Hill crowd bobbed up and down as Walker told his Kohl’s story, punctuated by sympathetic murmurs of “mm-hmm.”

The real-world applications matter less than Walker’s identification with people who undoubtedly have clipped the same coupons from the same Kohl’s fliers. It’s a new way of delivering the oldest and most powerful message in politics: I am one of you. And it clearly resonates with people jaded by what they’ve come to call “Washington insiders” such as Graham and Jeb Bush. (It doesn’t hurt that Walker, the son of a Baptist minister and a bookkeeper, can tell that story with some credibility; it’d be harder for Jeb Bush to pull that off, as it was for Mitt Romney.)

“He’s a real person. He came up from the grassroots to be what he is,” said William Wiseman, a 75-year-old retired Air Force sergeant from Fort Mill. “I don’t think he’s an establishment candidate.”

To hell with Washington, and the suburbs, too: Republican presidential candidates fall over each other to demonstrate who hates Washington most. But Walker takes things a step further.

In Rock Hill, he referred to the nation’s capital as “68 square miles surrounded by reality.” He said Obama and Clinton measure America’s success by how many people are on government assistance and how well the D.C. area’s economy is doing as opposed to the nation’s. (I did not know this!)

That last point was a head-scratcher. Everyone’s heard GOP politicians slag “Washington” as a synonym for the federal government, but I’ve never heard one take a shot at the ‘burbs. But Walker cited a recent Forbes study that offered a damning revelation—six of the nation’s 10 wealthiest counties are in metro Washington.

Which proves … I’m not sure what. Was Walker pointing a populist finger at the idle rich growing fat on government contracts? Was he drawing a contrast between the high-lifers in Alexandria., Va., and the hard-workin’, Kohl’s-shoppin’ folk of York County? Is he saying wealth is the victor’s share of the spoils when it comes from the private sector and institutionalized theft when public?

Walker didn’t elaborate. But he left me wondering why a GOP presidential candidate would want to punish success.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest