Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s decisive victory over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in Tuesday’s Wisconsin recall election instantly catapulted Walker to the highest echelon of state GOP leaders, while handing organized labor a humiliating setback with potentially troubling implications for President Obama this fall.
Labor leaders who forced the highly unusual recall election made a valiant effort to turn out their supporters, and delivered more than a third of the overall vote in yesterday polling. But they were outspent by Walker’s forces by better than 7 to 1 in Wisconsin’s costliest statewide election ever. In the end, they were no match for the media onslaught and turn-out-the-vote effort marshaled by state and national Republican organizations and political action committees.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, candidates and outside groups spent more than $63 million on the recall election – easily smashing the previous record of $37.4 million for spending in a Wisconsin election. Walker and his Republican allies spent more than $45.6 million on the race.
“Bringing our state together will take some time, but I hope to start right away,” Walker said in a statement shortly after his win. “It is time to put our differences aside and figure out ways we can move Wisconsin forward.” Walker, 44, plans to meet with his cabinet on Wednesday to discuss job creation and other steps he’ll take to encourage economic growth and continue to address education reform in Wisconsin.
By virtue of his impressive 8-point win, the former state Assemblyman and Milwaukee County Executive has solidified his position within an elite group of relatively new GOP governors – including Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Scott of Michigan and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. These high-powered and high profile state executives have the ear of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and have been mentioned as possible vice presidential running mates.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, kept his distance from the race, but issued a statement last night, saying that the recall results “will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.”
“Governor Walker has demonstrated over the past year what sound fiscal policies can do to turn an economy around, and I believe that in November, voters across the country will demonstrate that they want the same in Washington, D.C.,” Romney said.
Tuesday’s recall marks only the third time in U.S. history that voters have gone to the polls to decide whether to oust a sitting governor, and the first time an incumbent has won. Some are viewing it as the second most important election this year because it provided a taste of the sharp partisan and ideological divide of the two parties in organizing and turning out their supporters.
Peter D. Hart, a prominent Democratic pollster, told The Fiscal Times earlier this week that the Wisconsin turnout would be an important “preview” of the intensity of Democratic and Republican support heading into the November election. “If this race ends up as a dead-even fight, I think that’s a good sign the Democrats have done a good job in their turnout effort,” he said. “If it turns out as a large win for the governor, that’s a bad sign for the Democrats and a good sign for the Republicans in the turnout battle.”
Walker’s 54 percent to 46 percent victory is also certain to embolden other governors and state leaders to take stronger stands against public employee unions curtail their collective bargaining rights in order to rein in their pay and benefits. Republican governors of a handful of states, including Michigan, Ohio and Florida, have attempted to downsize government payrolls and reduce benefits and pensions, with mixed results.
The labor movement has suffered a severe decline in membership and political influence since its glory days of the 1950s when more than a third of the workforce were dues-paying members of unions. Today, just 12 percent of the workforce is unionized according to the Labor Department, partly because of the shift from an industrial to a service economy. Public employees make up the fastest growing segment of the overall union workforce, and they were at the center of the controversy that led to the recall of Walker.
Last year, irate union members and Democrats stormed the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison to protest the new governor’s efforts to strip public employees of many of their collective bargaining rights. Walker claimed his plan imposed higher health care and pension co-pays in order to help balance the state’s budget. He said his budget repair plan would save about $30 million in its current fiscal year and another $300 million over the next two years, but critics attacked it as anti-union.
A subsequent recall petition collected more than 900,000 signatures, and a seemingly galvanized labor movement and Democratic activists dreamed of toppling Walker and riding the recall to an even bigger victory in the November elections for president and Congress. But 14 months later, that dream was dashed, after an energized Walker – backed by a massive campaign war chest – beat Barrett for the second time since their first matchup for governor in 2010.
Bill Schneider, a senior fellow and resident scholar at centrist think tank Third Way, said that the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and other labor groups lately have had a tough time flexing their political muscles – and that yesterday’s recall election marked another significant setback.
“I don’t think it was do or die, but it was a big setback for them,” Schneider told The Fiscal Times. “That means that even with all the voter anger out there and in a fairly progressive state like Wisconsin, they couldn’t pull it off. This was a case where the governor actually put a stake through their heart by ending collective bargaining rights . . . And if they can’t pull together a big enough coalition with their members and their allies to beat this thing, that is a very sad testimony to bad times.”
"This is one election," Chris Fleming, the media director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told Yahoo News of the recall, adding that the left was heavily outspent in this race. "We cannot compete with the Koch brothers and all of Walker's millionaire and billionaire megalomaniac friends who want to take control of the government."
Labor groups and their allies reportedly knocked on more than 300,000 doors during the last few days of the campaign and placed more than 400,000 phone calls, according to AFSCME, the leading force in the recall effort.
Republicans came close to matching labor’s ground game while dominating the air with television ads. They opened more than 20 offices across the state, according to the Washington Post, and along with the Republican National Committee, made more than 4 million voter contacts – twice as many as they made before the 2010 election and a figure that rivals the Democratic effort this year.
President Obama carried Wisconsin in the 2008 election by 14 percentage points and hopes to repeat that performance again this year. Romney is targeting Wisconsin for a possible pickup, and his national campaign organization will be able to build on the Walker field organization. But even with the Republican victory on Tuesday, it wasn’t clear that Romney could assume the momentum of Walker’s campaign. Exit polls of voters indicated that 18 percent of Walker’s supporters said they favored Mr. Obama.
Obama and the White House stayed far away from the recall effort, apparently fearing Republicans could turn the election into a referendum on the president’s record. Obama strategists saw no upside to the president getting involved in a volatile recall election. “This is a gubernatorial race with a guy who was recalled and a challenger trying to get him out of office,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told MSNBC this week. “It has nothing to do with President Obama at the top of the ticket.”
But Walker’s strong showing clearly has the Obama campaign nervous, and is forcing a reassessment of what will be needed to hold on to the Badger State this fall. Earlier this week, Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, characterized the state as a tossup in an update on his reelection efforts sent to supporters on Monday.
“This was a test for the Obama reelection campaign, because if he is planning to run a base strategy, the way Bush ran in 2004, a defeat in Wisconsin raises a serious question about whether that strategy can work,” said Schneider, the political analyst. “This was the Democratic party base turning out. It’s not just organized labor. It’s organized labor and its partisan allies. And if they can’t win in Wisconsin, do you think they can win in Virginia? It’s a powerful message to President Obama and the Democrats.”