The reaction to the failed recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker varies, although conventional wisdom has settled on a few points. To Politico, in its write-up of “winners and losers,” the election was validation for both Walker and conservative governors around the country, as voters endorsed a strategy that balances the budget through cuts to public sector unions, cuts to services, and lower taxes. For the team at ABC News, Wisconsin is a preview for the general election, where both parties will spend millions in an attempt to attract a small number of swing voters.
Buzzfeed focuses on disappointed Barrett supporters to argue that this is a bad omen for President Obama, and CNN highlights the extent to which Republicans are optimistic about their chances in the state. Among liberals, the early reaction is alarm at the power of unregulated money in elections–Walker outspent Barrett, 7 to 1–and anger toward Obama for staying away from the state. Conservatives, on the other hand, are jubilant.
There are a few places where the conventional wisdom is right. Wisconsin was a testing ground for November, and both parties will build on and improve the strategies they used for charging up supporters and getting voters to the polls. Likewise, as Greg pointed out in his analysis, this was a sign to Republicans that they can break public sector unions — a key Democratic constituency — without significant political damage. Thanks to his initial move to break the unions, Walker has the highest profile of any Republican governor in the country.
Where the conventional wisdom goes off the rails is in the attempt to draw broad lessons for November, and attribute motives to Wisconsin voters. At this point, there’s little evidence to suggest an easier battle for Republicans in Wisconsin. According to exit polls, Walker won 17 percent of Obama supporters in the state, and overall, last night’s electorate favored the president over Mitt Romney by a significant margin, 52 percent to 43 percent. It’s a smaller margin than 2008, where he won the state by 14 points, but it’s a solid performance, and a sign that — in reality — Wisconsin is less vulnerable than it looks. Indeed, as of last night, President Obama’s Wisconsin effort is in great shape, and conservatives should temper their view of their chances in the state
Of course, this leads to a question; who are these pro-Walker, pro-Obama voters? Simple. For 60 percent of last night’s voters, a recall is only acceptable in cases of offical misconduct. For 10 percent, a recall is never acceptable. It’s not that these voters are pro-Walker, pro-Obama as much as they are pro-Obama, anti-recall. To them, this is a question of stability — “how are we supposed to govern a state if a governor can be deposed for controversial policies?” You may not like Walker — and see him as a dangerous ideologue — but it’s a fair point.
What’s more, this throws water on the idea that Obama could have turned the tide had he campaigned for Barrett. If a substantial portion of Wisconsinites are opposed to the recall qua the recall, then there’s not much Obama could have done to change minds. That was a job for Wisconsin Democrats, who should have done more to show voters that Walker had sprung a radical and unprecedented agenda on the electorate, and deserved to be removed from office.
Finally, while the Republican money advantage was huge, it’s not clear that it overwhelmed grassroots efforts, or made a decisive difference in the election. Improved economic conditions in Wisconsin left Walker with a stronger image, and many voters held procedural objections to the recall. Both of those could have been the product of ads and outside spending, or both could have been the result of prior views. It’s hard to say. Regardless of how money influenced the race, this is a wake up call to Democrats around the country, who now see the extent to which Citizens United has allowed Republicans to raise massive amounts from a handful of wealthy people. There’s no doubt that both the DNC and the Obama campaign is using this to try scare donors into further giving.
As for rank-and-file Democratic voters, particularly liberals, I thought David Frum had the most insightful take:
Democrats interpret Wisconsin not as a battle over wages and benefits, but as an illegitimate attempt to rewrite the rules of politics to their permanent disadvantage. They are confirmed in a view that the Republican party is a force for concentrated wealth, contemptuous of democracy and fair play. Democrats will emerge from this loss radicalized, not chastened.
This is exactly right. More than anything, the GOP is working to destroy the infrastructure of the Democratic Party, and so far — with the assault on public sector unions — it’s been a tremendous success.