Wisconsin’s recall drama: the shape of things to come in November?

Although most foreign observers of American political developments have been focusing their attention on the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, there are other important political happenings. The Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election may be the most important of them all – and a sign of things to come in November. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at this highly unusual political race.

UPDATE: According to exit polls and early results, all major news sources are now calling governor Scott Walker the winner in a close, bitter contest that sought to recall him and replace him with Democratic Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. The results will be studied closely by strategists in both parties for insights in managing the campaigns of both president Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.

After less than two years in office, Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, is facing a recall election that is being touted as a kind of forward look at the possible shape of the November presidential election. Walker originally came into office as part of the Republican/Tea Party wave that gained control of the House of Representatives as well as other state-level positions around the nation in the 2010 mid-term election.

But, almost immediately after he took office, Walker himself became an issue when he proposed legislation, just a month into his first term of office, that was designed to sharply restrict collective bargaining rights for most state workers and to have them pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits as part of his plan to deal with the state’s budget shortfall.

But his surprise proposal provoked rancorous protests in the state’s capital, attracting up to 100,000 people. They eventually included efforts by 14 Democratic legislators to flee the state for three weeks to stall the bill’s passage by preventing a quorum in the state senate. Walker eventually signed the proposal into law on March 11, virtually unchanged from how he had originally framed it. But this, in turn, prompted the recall measure that has been over a year in the making and threatens to turn him out of office.

Since the recall petition efforts began, opposition to Walker has increasingly coalesced around the issue of job creation. In 2010, in his campaign for office, Walker had promised to create 250,000 jobs in the state over a four-year period, but he is not on pace to meet that goal. Monthly jobs figures, based on a survey of about 3.5% of Wisconsin employers, say job creation has been flat since Walker took office. A more comprehensive data set says about 33,000 new jobs have been created so far in Walker’s term, although that is still well off Walker’s promised pace of job generation.

Tom Barrett, meanwhile, has said that if he replaces Walker he would adopt a comprehensive jobs agenda that emphasised manufacturing, small business, clean energy, venture capital, high-tech and bio-tech and the state’s significant agricultural economy. A subsidiary line of attack has been Barrett’s argument that Walker has made job creation secondary to his partisan attacks on the state’s public employee unions.

In building support for the recall, its sponsors eventually gathered about 900,000 signatures (about 360,000 more than were actually needed), triggering an automatic recall vote in accord with Wisconsin state law. The Tuesday election would, therefore, if the recall passed, force the unexpected retirement of the governor, making Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, the new governor, as well as recalling four state legislators, thereby giving control of the senate to Democrats.

This gubernatorial recall election is only taking place for the third time in American history. The others were when California governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and back in 1921 when North Dakota governor Lynn Frazier was similarly removed in a special vote.

This movement arose in California and Midwestern states like Wisconsin in the early 20th century to give citizens more of a say in governance. One of the “patron saints” of the Progressive Movement was in fact Wisconsin’s governor and later senator Robert LaFollette from that period.

Given the national attention on this contest, the growing harshness of the rhetoric on both sides, and the way the financial muscle of national rightwing donors and the manpower of unions have lined up on opposite sides of this election, many analysts are seeing this recall vote as a kind of harbinger of the texture – and perhaps outcome – of the national presidential election.

As a result, this Wisconsin election is being described as the first round in the larger national battle over balancing the budget (and on whose backs this will be done), as well as alternative strategies to support economic recovery. Speaking on MSNBC just before voting began, Republican national committee chairman Reince Priebus predicted that if Wisconsin, now seen as a battleground or swing state for the November ballot, goes Republican, “I think it’s lights out for Barack Obama.”

Not surprisingly, Walker’s opponents disagree strongly. “This certainly carries symbolic importance for us,” said state senator Fred Risser, one of the legislators that fled the state to try to prevent a legislative quorum. But, Risser added, “hopefully it will show where the voters are going, and create momentum. But in the end, what happens in November will really decide whether we’ll be able to put the brakes on some of what the Republicans want to do with this state.”
The most recent poll from the weekend before the election had Walker ahead 50% to 47%, but this race has apparently been closing further in the final hours before the votes are all cast. But, regardless of any pre-election preference data, the final result will probably hinge on actual voter turnout – and that, in turn, will depend firmly on final-hour efforts by the respective campaigns to get voters to the polling stations and actually vote, save for those who have already voted in Wisconsin’s advance voting process.

Walker first won the governorship in 2010, beating Barrett, when about half the electorate turned out to vote. When Obama gained Wisconsin’s presidential vote two years earlier, turnout was significantly higher at about 69%, and about 60 to 65 % of Wisconsin residents of voting age are expected to vote this time around. A Republican has not carried Wisconsin in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan won in 1984.

As campaigning built up to Tuesday’s vote, the effort has become so acrimonious and so nationally prominent, it has already set a Wisconsin record for campaign spending in a statewide race – and further divided an already deeply polarised state into two sharply hostile camps. According to local journalists, Walker’s supporters have spent about seven times the amount of money Barrett’s campaign has been able to bring to bear on the contest, but Barrett’s union supporters have marshalled a sophisticated ground campaign to contact voters personally.

“It’s been really amazing to see so many people coming out and going door to door, which is not very comfortable for most people,” said Fiona Cahill, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin Madison. On the day before the election, Cahill and her mother were doing door-to-door canvassing in the university town of Madison. “But people are coming out because it’s something they really believe in,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kristen Crowell, executive director of the pro-recall group, We Are Wisconsin, told the press that the group is on target to knock on about 1.4 million doors and make a million and a half phone calls. This group has focused on the so-called “ground game” with its 50,000 volunteers and nearly $3-million for its field operation since the previous month’s Democratic primary election. Parallel to this, the Democratic Governors Association has directed most of its energies and funds towards TV ads.

Despite the recall effort and the earlier protests at the Wisconsin State House building, Walker has remained unflappable. He is now a star for Republicans – and the state’s most successful fundraiser ever, collecting at least $31-million from around the country since taking office. This figure has nearly trebled his previous fundraising record of $11-million in 2010. In fact, much of this money has come from out-of-state sources across the country. Astonishingly, about $63-million has been spent on the race already, including $16-million from conservative groups like the Republican Governors’ Association, Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association.

The majority of Walker’s donations have come from outside Wisconsin.

Democratic groups – including those funded by unions, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee – have brought about $14-million to the party. Barrett’s $4.2-million in direct donations has mostly been generated from within the state.

The race has also been pulling in the big guns as supporting campaigners, including Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former president Bill Clinton for the two sides. A small flap has also come from the fact that Obama has not personally campaigned for Barrett, although he has used Twitter to send the message that he supports and stands by Barrett.

If Walker wins, he remains governor and Barrett remains mayor of Milwaukee and the Republicans will be smiling over the happy auguries. But, if Barrett wins, there will be lots of cheering in Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters.
Walker will get to stay in office for about two and a half more weeks until the state elections board issues a certificate declaring the election results official. Then he’ll be a private citizen again – and only the third governor politically defenestrated in American history.

Analysts, of course, will spend hours parsing the results for signs and portents of what this means for November. DM

Read more:

  • Wisconsin holds recall more than a year in making at the AP
  • Frenzied Campaigning on Eve of Wisconsin Vote at the New York Times
  • What to know about the Wisconsin recall vote at the AP
  • In Wisconsin recall, it’s TV ad spending vs. boots on the ground at the Washington Post
  • Wisconsin recall election: Dems scramble for final push at the Politico website
  • Wisconsin’s recall vote at the Economist

Photo: Gubernatorial candidate and Milwaukee’s Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett lines up to vote at the French Immersion School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 5, 2012. (REUTERS/John Gress)


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted