Tomorrow’s Wisconsin recall election is being viewed as the second-most important race this year, a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) move to curtail public workers’ collective bargaining rights and a harbinger of whether Republicans have a shot at turning the Badger State red this fall.
But the recall is significant for one other reason: It serves as a proxy for the national battle between Democrats’ much-touted ground organization and Republicans’ fundraising advantage.
With Walker ahead in the polls and leading Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) in the money race by more than 7 to 1 – and with GOP-aligned outside groups far outspending their counterparts across the aisle — Democrats maintain that their shot at victory depends on a far superior get-out-the-vote operation buoyed in large part by organized labor.
At the Madison Labor Temple, a staging location for the union-backed coalition We Are Wisconsin, organizers Monday morning were sending out volunteers to remind Democrats to vote.
“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. She went canvassing Monday in Madison with her mother Kay. “But people are coming out because it’s something they really believe in,” she added.
We Are Wisconsin Executive Director Kristen Crowell said in an interview Monday that the group is on target to knock on 1.4 million doors and make 1.5 million phone calls. The group — which has concentrated its efforts on the ground game while the Democratic Governors Association has focused largely on TV ads — has about 50,000 volunteers and has spent $2.8 million on its field operation since last month’s Democratic primary.
“From day one there’s been a strong, strong commitment to fund and prioritize the field campaign,” she said. “We’ve always recognized that it will come down to turnout and our ability to connect to voters at the door.”
Over the weekend, Barrett’s camp had dispatched more than 10,000 volunteers, knocking on about 948,000 doors and making nearly 890,000 phone calls. Spokesman Phillip Walzak said that those numbers were expected to “more than double” by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board is predicting turnout of 60 to 65 percent — more than in the 2010 election, when turnout was about 50 percent, but less than the 69 percent turnout rate during the 2008 presidential race.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, more than $63.5 million has been spent by candidates and independent groups on the recall to date, making it the state’s most expensive election.
A little more than half of that amount – about $34.5 million – is composed of contributions to the two candidates, with Walker taking the majority ($30.5 million compared to Barrett’s $4 million).
The remaining $30 million or so in expenditures has been made by outside organizations, according to the independent tracking group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. And the bulk of that $30 million is spending by GOP-aligned groups on behalf of Walker.
The tea party group Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $10 million on the race. And the Republican Governors Association has spent nearly that amount.
Republicans are by no means ceding the ground game to Democrats; $1.5 million of the RGA’s outlays in the race have been on a get-out-the-vote effort in the run-up to Tuesday, Politico reported. And Wisconsin Republicans say that volunteers have made more than 4 million phone calls – double the 2 million calls Republicans made in the 2010 midterms.
“We have the largest grass-roots organization Republicans have ever had in Wisconsin,” state GOP Chairman Ben Sparks said.
Even so, the race represents a particularly high-stakes moment for Democrats and the labor-fueled ground operation on which they have relied in some tough races in the past. A Walker victory would most likely lead Democrats to make the case that a fight they had picked – and until recent weeks had expected to win – was lost in large part due to a flood of outside spending.
In defending President Obama’s decision not to campaign for Barrett, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) sought Monday to cast the race as a state one – even though both she and former president Bill Clinton stumped on Barrett’s behalf in recent days.
“This is a recall that was put on the ballot by Wisconsin voters,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview on MSNBC.
A Barrett win, by contrast, could lead Republicans and GOP-aligned national groups to further make the case against the powerful labor organizations that they argue were the reason Walker pursued his collective bargaining reforms in the first place.
“I think this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for outside, public union boss money coming in in the first place,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday afternoon in an interview on MSNBC.
In either case, the outcome will probably have lasting repercussions on the race for the White House and each party’s decision to pour greater resources into the battle on the ground or on the airwaves.
In the meantime, with independent polling showing Walker ahead over the past few weeks, Republicans say they are feeling cautiously optimistic about Tuesday.
“It’s not easy to win in Wisconsin for either party,” Priebus said. “It’s always tough. We’re used to it and both parties have a pretty good turnout machine, so we’ll just have to wait and see, but I think Walker comes out successful.”
Crowell, the We Are Wisconsin executive director, said that those recent polling numbers have only energized volunteers.
“We feel very confident and very good about the position we’re in today,” she said. “We’ve got a fabulous plan. We’re going to beat expectations.”
And those on the side of labor argue that even if Walker wins, the battle isn’t over.
“Look how long it took Karl Rove to take things over,” said one labor official. “A movement isn’t built in a day.”
Weiner reported from Madison.
This post has been updated since it was first published.