Can Walker Hit South Carolina's Sweet Spot?

Jul 17, 2015
Originally published on July 17, 2015 11:29 am

Scorching temperatures near the triple digits weren't driving away the 325 people gathered to hear Scott Walker speak at a Lexington, S.C., barbecue joint Wednesday.

Packed under an open-air porch with fans that were hardly helping, the heat didn't seem to affect the enthusiasm for the Wisconsin governor on just his second day as an announced presidential candidate — and it's the type of excitement he'll need to generate to win the important South Carolina GOP primary.

Clad in his Harley boots, jeans and a button-down shirt, Walker bounded onto stage that afternoon to Dierks Bentley's "I Hold On."

That may have been the motto for the day for Walker, who was running on no sleep since 4 a.m. the day before, thanks to flight snafus and cancellations.

"Holding on" could also be the Wisconsin governor's maxim in the traditionally rough-and-tumble Palmetto State politics. He's at the top of very early polls there, but the Southern prize is wide open, even with one of its sitting senators running.

With Iowa considered a must-win for Walker, and lesser hopes in moderate New Hampshire, a victory in South Carolina in 2016 could secure Walker's place atop the GOP field.

The state is looking to reclaim its streak of picking presidential nominees, and Walker could be just the candidate who can bridge its divide — appealing to both conservative and establishment coalitions across the state's diverse Republican Party as a recipe for a win.

Running On Adrenaline

There was no weariness in Walker's stride, though, as he barreled from one end of the Palmetto State to the other. The Republican was feeding on pure adrenaline as he delivered his stump speech three times — and at the final stop even had to do an abbreviated version in the parking lot (again, with temperatures reaching into the 90s) to an overflow crowd of 500 at Mutt's BBQ in Mauldin, S.C.

"In case you hadn't heard, I'm Scott Walker, I'm running for president, and I'm asking for your vote," he said to roars at the trio of stops, starting early that morning at 8 a.m. in North Charleston at a Harley-Davidson store.

"Americans want to vote for something and for someone, so give me a few minutes and I'm going to tell you what I'm for."

He ticked off his own record, which most in the crowd are familiar with — "we took on the unions, and we won," and his three victories in four years in a blue-leaning state.

When asked what they know about Scott Walker or why they came out to see him, most in the crowds said it's his fight with labor that impressed them and left them wanting to know more.

"I know that he instituted some pretty major changes in Wisconsin, had a lot of pushback from a lot of people but was able keep what I think were positive changes in place," Nancy Nicodemus of nearby Summerville said at his North Charleston event.

To fill out the rest for voters, Walker runs down his history of tax cuts and social credentials. Another top reminder is that he worked to defund Planned Parenthood — particularly resonant in this socially conservative state a day after a controversial video that allegedly showed a top staffer discussing the sale of parts of aborted fetuses to researchers.

He's against Common Core education standards — unpopular with conservatives in South Carolina — and gets lots of cheers for his push to reform welfare in Wisconsin, including mandatory job training enrollment and drug testing.

But the main crux of Walker's stump is his humble roots — a not-so-subtle jab at wealthier, more privileged candidates in the race like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and billionaire businessman Donald Trump. He's the son of a Baptist minister and a part-time secretary, whose grandparents didn't even have indoor plumbing while his mother was growing up. He talks of how his first job was as a dishwasher but he later was hired to flip burgers at McDonald's. He doesn't mention his own time in college, though, and the fact that he never finished his degree at Marquette University.

"We did not inherit fame or fortune from our family," said Walker. "What we got was the belief that if you work hard and you play by the rules you can do and be anything. That's the American dream, and that is worth fighting for."

Another anecdote he tells to drive that point home is of how his family shops at Kohl's department store — but on the discount rack, and armed with coupons and "Kohl's cash."

It's an illustration he ties into tax cuts and spending. Arguing that Kohl's can afford such deep discounts because of the volume it produces, Walker says the federal government should mimic that idea.

"The government could charge higher rates, and a few of you could afford it. Or we can lower the rates, broaden the base and increase the value of people participating in the economy," said Walker, renaming Ronald Reagan's "Laffer curve" the "Kohl's curve."

Gaming A South Carolina Win

For Walker, he'll have to use a unique balancing act to win the Palmetto State. Except for the state's wrong pick in 2012 of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, South Carolina had a perfect streak of picking the eventual GOP nominee since 1980.

Past nominees won by crafting winning coalitions across the state — appealing to the Upstate's sizable evangelical population while also wooing more "country club Republicans," military veterans and retirees in the Lowcountry. That's how George W. Bush got a win in 2000, securing his place. The foe he defeated, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was able to bridge the divides and win in 2008, though.

South Carolina GOP consultant Chip Felkel says his then-college professor Whit Ayres — now a national pollster for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign — summed up the state like this: "In the Upstate they want to know where you go to church, in the Midlands they want to know where you work, and in Charleston they want to know what you want to drink."

Felkel, who is unaligned in the 2016 race, says Walker could have the right mix for South Carolina. After he jolted into the national conversation after a fiery Iowa speech in January, his nascent campaign had some growing pains and stumbles. On his announcement tour at least, those appeared to have been fixed.

"He's got that blue collar appeal, and his messaging seems that he's going to try to play to that hilt," said Felkel. "I think in certain parts of the state he's got the potential to do pretty well, but he's got to prove he's ready for prime time."

For John Borkowski of Mt. Pleasant, Walker might just be the sweet spot for him and other South Carolinians — not too moderate, not too conservative, but just right.

"I think a lot of folks around here are tired of the establishment, of the Jeb Bushes of the world. We love [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz, but sometimes he just talks too much, he's just out there to be heard," Borkowski said at the North Charleston stop. "Scott Walker, when he says something, he does it. He took on the unions and he beat them. He took on the schools and the teachers and beat them. He took on the recall and won. He's a worker — he says what he does and does what he says."

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