Unions vs. Scott Walker: Wisconsin Recall Fizzles
Business + Economy

Unions vs. Scott Walker: Wisconsin Recall Fizzles

Reuters/Darren Hauck

Last year, irate union members and Democrats stormed the Wisconsin state Capital in Madison to protest newly installed Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bills 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. Others thought he wanted to break the unions.

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, Congress and the state legislature.

But 14 months later, that dream has faded. Now, an energized Walker – backed by a massive campaign war chest and Republican and conservative PAC advertising –appears on the verge of vanquishing his Democratic challenger, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, in next Tuesday’s closely watched  recall election. Walker defeated Barrett in the 2010 governor’s race by a margin of 50-45, and the latest polls show Walker still commanding a similar lead, with only a handful of undecided voters.

Moreover, he drew a huge Republican turnout for last month’s GOP recall primary, although he was virtually unchallenged. “That turnout really suggests that Walker is on to something,” said Arnold Shober, an assistant professor of government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. “There is a substantial amount of energy on his side of the ticket that he can really count on. His tenure has been divisive, but he hasn’t lost support among those people who find that he did the right thing.”

There are a number of explanations for this dramatic turnabout – one that could pose a humiliating setback for organized labor and their Democratic allies, according to interviews and media reports:

Money -- Walker’s campaign has outspent Barrett’s organization by nearly 8 to 1, and Republican political action committees have pummeled Barrett with negative advertising portraying him an ineffective mayor.  Walker has raised about $31 million since he took office 17 months ago, including $5.9 million in the last five weeks, according to a new report on Tuesday.

Barrett, who was bound to fundraising limits of no more than $10,000 from any one donor, reported $3.4 million over the past five weeks. He raised about $4.2 million since joining the race at the end of March and had $1.5 million cash on hand.

Organization -- The Wisconsin Republican Party and the Republican National Committee have been outhustling the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee in orchestrating grass roots events and identifying and mobilizing Republican voters. The Wisconsin Republican Party and the Republican National Committee have teamed up to make more than 2.5 million calls identifying voters, according to the Washington Post.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin Republican chairman, said the party “has done more work in this state than in any state in the country.” The Democratic National Committee is fundraising directly for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in an effort to help the turnout, while AFSCME Council 24 Executive Director Mary Beil pledged to mount a grassroots campaign “to counter Walker’s millions from out-of-state billionaires.”

GOP solidarity -- An array of high profile Republican governors, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, Niki Haley of South Carolina, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Bob McDonnell of Virginia have traveled to Wisconsin to campaign for Walker. In contrast, many national Democrats including some of President Obama’s advisers have been wary of the recall effort from the start and have largely been keeping their distance.

Labor disarray -- The once united and high-flying labor movement is sorely divided over the choice of Barrett to take on Walker. Many labor organizers and rank and file members had favored Dane County executive Kathleen Falk in the June 5 primary election and had poured $4 million into her campaign coffers. But Barrett trounced Falk in the primary last month, 57 percent to 35 percent, a development that sent some disgruntled labor members to the sidelines as the general election campaign heated up.

Union leaders have occasionally clashed with Barrett, and were frustrated that he refused to commit to vetoing any budget submitted to the state legislature that does not restore employees' collective bargaining rights. Some also view Barrett as damaged goods after losing once to Walker, and they would have preferred a fresher face.

“The race may get tighter but Walker is outspending Barrett by a mile and spending twice as much as Walker did to win the governorship the first time in 2010,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.  “I'm still puzzled why the unions went ahead with this while not having a strong candidate to challenge Walker. Barrett is a retread and he lost the first time.”

“[Former Democratic senator] Russ Feingold might have been able to win but I don't see anyone else,” Sabato added. You shouldn't attempt a chancy recall unless you have mapped out the election that follows the petition filing.”

Shortly after Walker took office last year and the GOP dominated state legislature pushed through the legislation at his behest, mass demonstrations in Madison drew national attention and triggered the subsequent recall petition drive. The campaign signaled a populist uproar that threatened to topple Walker and provide the Democrats and the AFL-CIO and AFSCME with a surge of momentum heading into the fall election.

Many Democrats and labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka who spoke in Madison during the protests, portrayed the Wisconsin recall as a referendum on Walker’s overreach of power.

But some political experts say it was the union chiefs who overreached in pressing for a rare recall instead of marshaling support to unseat Walker when he was up for reelection. While many rank and file Democrats and independents objected to Walker’s ham-handed tactics in forcing through his anti-union measures and budget cuts, some -- including union members – agreed with some of Walker’s conservative economic policies.

A recent Public Policy Polling surprisingly  showed  Walker with a 39 percent approval rating from union households. While many of those respondents are private-sector union members, such as Teamsters or Sheet Metal Workers, and not the public employees who pushed for the recall, the poll suggests that Walker’s policies enjoy wider support than one might assume. While collective bargaining was the issue that set off the protests and the recall effort, government spending, the economy and job creation has become the focus of the recall campaign.

“Even though I think the unions in the state were instrumental in the recall effort, I’m not sure they’ve had as much influence on the things that have happened since the signatures were collected,” said Timothy M. Dale, a political professor at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. “You actually don’t hear Barrett talking very much about collective bargaining.”

He added, “The other thing is that people are really worried about having jobs in Wisconsin. This is the main refrain from both of the candidates, and I think the unions haven’t been particularly effective at arguing in that same discussion.”

During their first televised debate this month, Barrett accused Walker of deliberately dividing the state for political gain, charging that the governor had begun a political civil war by targeting public employee unions. The governor has also come under considerable heat from investigations into corruption during his tenure as Milwaukee County Executive.  Walker contends that his rivals are trying to punish him through the recall election for taking on special interests on behalf of the taxpayers.

While Wisconsin is enjoying one of its lowest unemployment rates in four years, Walker put himself in a box by promising during his last campaign to “get government out of the way of employers . . . who will then help Wisconsin create 250,000 jobs by 2015”. Despite his effort at using creative math and political spin to argue he is making progress on that front, a recent report showed that only 5,900 jobs have been created since Walker took office.

“It turns out that on both sides there have been creative additions and subtractions of jobs,” said Dale, the political scientist. “Walker promised hundreds of thousands of jobs created in Wisconsin during his term as governor, and he needs to show -- or at least convince -- people that he is on track to do that.”