COLUMBIA, S.C.—Not long ago, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was a target of protesters mainly in his home state. As the likely presidential candidate makes his way across the country, they now follow wherever he goes.
Picket signs have shadowed Walker outside a hotel in Dubuque, Iowa, a high school in Concord, N.H., and Thursday at a Marriott Hotel in Columbia, S.C., as he began a two-day swing through the state that in 11 months will host the first southern primary.
Walker’s actions during the past four years to reduce the strength of organized labor in Wisconsin have made him a national hero to conservatives while galvanizing union opposition against him. The rolling protest movement it has engendered is unlike anything faced by the dozen or so other Republicans contemplating running for the White House.
“We will hound him wherever he goes,” said Bruce Clark, president of the Dubuque Federation of Labor and one of the March 7 protest organizers in Iowa.
On Thursday, nine protesters gathered in the rain outside the Columbia hotel. On a sidewalk, they marched along two sides of the building, carrying union banners and signs and occasionally waving to drivers who honked passing by.
“Everyone in the labor movement knows Scott Walker and thinks he’s a very, very, very scary man,” Erin McKee, president of the 16,000-member AFL-CIO in South Carolina, said before the march.
Inside, Walker called the gathering of protesters “pretty small in comparison to what I’m used to.”
Walker’s trip, his first to South Carolina since 2013, follows one by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The two are early front-runners for the Republican nomination, polls show.
The Wisconsin governor’s anti-labor message could resonate in South Carolina more than in any other early primary state. At 2.2 percent, South Carolina was behind only North Carolina for lowest rate of union membership among workers in 2014, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
Part of the reason is its so-called right-to-work law, which dates to 1954 and allows employees in union workplaces to opt out of dues and membership. Walker, 47, signed similar legislation last week in Wisconsin, inflaming anger that has festered since 2011, when he limited collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
In South Carolina, the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers has asked the National Labor Relations Board to set a vote for more than 2,400 Boeing Co. workers to determine whether they can form a union at a North Charleston plant that makes the 787 Dreamliner. The union is opposed by Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican whom Walker is courting for support.
“The fact that he has a history of fighting unions is something South Carolinians are more attuned to now because of what’s happened with Boeing,” said Adam Temple, a South Carolina Republican who worked for Senator John McCain’s presidential primary campaign in 2008. “Voters are looking for someone who has faced that and been successful with that.”
In almost every speech, Walker recounts his confrontations with labor, including how as many as 100,000 demonstrators camped for weeks below the gilded ceilings of the Capitol in Madison.
“They seek to intimidate,” Walker said during his March 14 appearance in New Hampshire. “Instead of intimidating us, it reminded us exactly who elected us and the job they elected us to do.”
At the peak of the 2011 drama, protesters followed Walker to his home and across Wisconsin. They even used a flotilla of kayaks, canoes and other watercraft to disrupt a party hosted by Walker’s wife, Tonette, in July 2011 at the governor’s mansion on the banks of Lake Mendota.
Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin, said the activists who hound Walker know they also risk increasing his appeal to Republicans.
“Sitting quietly on the couch with a sad face isn’t going to help either,” she said.