On Monday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is expected to announce his entrance into the 2016 Republican presidential primary. It would make him the 15th Republican to enter the race, but early indicators suggest he’ll rocket to the front row of a crowded pack, propelled in large part by enthusiasm for his anti-union rhetoric.
Recent polls situate Walker in the top tier of candidates, and one even has him in first place in Iowa. But polling this early in the race is an inexact art. With seven months to go until the Iowa caucus, the more important sign of a candidate’s strength is his ability to fundraise. And in that department, Walker is widely expected to shine.
The second-term Wisconsin governor has long enjoyed support from some of the most influential donors in Republican politics. And their support has everything to do with Walker’s signature issue: His successful campaign to limit the power of labor unions in his home state.
“If you care about destroying unions, he’s your man,” said Lee Adler, a lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Some of the Republican Party’s top donors are also among the labor movement’s most fervent opponents, and Walker has enjoyed their support for years. In particular, Charles and David Koch — the billionaire siblings who together founded the conservative group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) — have been public Walker allies since 2011, when the Wisconsin governor fought his first major battle against the state’s labor movement.
Beginning that February, barely a month into his first term, Walker introduced Act 10 — legislation intended to sharply curtail the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. The measure ultimately passed, but not before thousands of union members converged on the state capitol to protest what they viewed as an attack on their very existence. AFP was one of the groups that reportedly arranged for counter-protesters to rally in support of Walker’s legislation.
AFP subsequently poured millions of dollars into the state to defend Walker against a union-led 2012 recall attempt. Walker trounced his Democratic opponent, becoming the first governor in the history of the United States to successfully weather a recall election.
AFP did not respond to a request for comment, but the group has praised Walker for his opposition to unions in a number of public statements. Most recently, AFP leaders applauded his March 2015 right-to-work legislation, which turned Wisconsin into the 25th state to ban unions from collecting agency fees from non-union members in the shops they represent.
“We’re pleased that Wisconsin is once again leading the way when it comes to work freedom,” said AFP Chief Operating Officer Luke Hilgemann in a March statement.
A 2014 report on Wisconsin’s economy from AFP’s local branch also credited Walker with making the state “more fiscally sound and economically sound” through his reforms, including his efforts to curtail the power of unions. David Koch himself told the Palm Beach Post in February 2012 that Walker’s efforts to reform the law around public sector unions was “critically important.”
“He’s an impressive guy and he’s very courageous,” said Koch.
Labor experts have suggested that Walker supported Act 10 and right-to-work as part of a long-term strategy to divide and then weaken the Wisconsin labor movement. Although union membership in the United States has been declining across the board for decades, organized labor is still relatively strong in the public sector nationally; Act 10 changed that in Wisconsin, causing the size and financial health of state employee unions to collapse virtually overnight. Once public sector unions were sufficiently weakened, the labor movement overall found itself ill-equipped to resist the passage of right-to-work legislation.
Labor activists view the passage of right-to-work as an overture to national Republican donors in advance of Walker's anticipated presidential bid.
“He will do or say anything to win an election. 2014 is in his rearview mirror. He’s looking at the presidency, and he’s making a different calculation now,” Mike Browne, deputy director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now, told Al Jazeera in February. “And that’s to appeal to right-wing millionaires and billionaires versus serving the people of Wisconsin.”
Walker’s record on labor issues has helped him build a donor base that extends far beyond the Koch family. He has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, identified by the Huffington Post as the single biggest individual donor to super PACs in the 2014 election. Republican presidential hopefuls covet Adelson’s support so deeply that earlier this year several of them participated in what the press has referred to as the “Adelson primary,” delivering speeches to a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Adelson is a board member of the organization, and the meeting was hosted at a hotel he owns in Las Vegas.
Walker also accepted a quarter of a million dollars from Michigan’s Dick DeVos during the 2012 recall campaign. DeVos, who was instrumental in the passage of Michigan’s own right-to-work law, is the second name on the Huffington Post’s list of super PAC donors; Charles and David Koch occupy the third slot. Further down the list, at number six, is Kenneth Griffin, who has reportedly already signed a check for Walker’s nascent presidential bid.
Adler, the Cornell University lecturer, said a track record of effectively curtailing union power is “a very, very important message that could pay considerable dividends to a candidate. The one who I think will be the most successful with that message by far will be Walker."
Republican voters tend to hold an unfavorable view of unions, and recent polling shows that anti-union sentiment within the party is positively correlated with income. An April report from Pew Research Center found that while Republicans with a family income of less than $30,000 annually are evenly split on unions — with 42 percent holding a favorable opinion and 42 holding an unfavorable one — Republicans making $75,000 or more per year hold a 67 percent unfavorable view.
Sources connected to Walker’s nascent campaign and leadership PAC did not return requests for comment, but the governor has emphasized his labor record in public statements related to his potential candidacy. When asked in February how he would combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as president, he said his experience in fighting unions had prepared him for the task.
“I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists do not wash up on American soil,” he said. "We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world. We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world."