One week after his own historic recall victory, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) on Wednesday argued that Democrat Ron Barber’s win in Tuesday’s special election for the seat of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has no national implications and was largely the result of a race driven more by personality than by policy.
“No,” Walker said when asked after a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event whether he believed there were any national lessons from Barber’s win. “I think if you look, it was personality-driven. You obviously had a staff member for the former congresswoman. I think a lot was connected to that.”
Barber, Giffords’s longtime district director, bested Republican Jesse Kelly on Tuesday by 6 percentage points in the GOP-leaning district.
Outside groups spent about $4 million on the Arizona race, and when it came to messaging, both sides tended to hone in on national issues rather than local ones. TV ads backing Barber highlighted Kelly’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget blueprint, while Kelly’s camp sought to tie Barber to President Obama.
The Giffords factor was highlighted only in the final days of the race, when the former congresswoman campaigned with Barber at a Saturday night event. The Democratic-leaning House Majority PAC also ran an ad featuring remarks in which Kelly called Giffords a “hero of nothing”; Kelly made the remarks at a 2010 tea party gathering, before the January 2011 shooting in which both the congresswoman and Barber were injured.
National Democrats argued Wednesday that Walker was incorrect and that the race offered a preview of the 2012 messaging fight.
“This election was a referendum on Republicans’ policy of cutting Medicare and privatizing Social Security to give tax breaks millionaires, Big Oil, and corporations that ship jobs overseas – and they lost,” the DCCC wrote in a memo to reporters Wednesday morning. “Stock ads from their 2010 playbook did not work.”
Walker argued Wednesday that Barber’s win “was something driven by the personality of that individual, whereas I think personality was largely devoid in our race in Wisconsin.”
“It was as close as you can get to a strict policy-versus-policy initiative,” he said. “One of the things I was most proud of was that it really was about, ‘What do you think the proper role of government is?’”
He argued that there are two different views when it comes to the role of government, and then proceeded to take a thinly veiled shot at Obama, who lives right across Lafayette Park from the Chamber’s downtown Washington office.
“There are some – in fact, some who live nearby this Chamber – who believe that the success of government is determined by how many more people are dependent on government services, particularly on unemployment,” Walker said.
“I – and I think my colleagues here would agree with this – I view success as just the opposite: How many people are not dependent on government?” he continued. “Not because we kicked them off of unemployment, but rather because we created a better environment so that those individuals can sustain more freedom, more liberty, more control over their own destiny through jobs in the private sector. If we can do that, there will be more freedom and prosperity for all.”
Walker was speaking at a news conference with Govs. Dave Heineman (R-Neb.) and Gary Herbert (R-Utah) as well as Chamber President Tom Donohue and Margaret Spellings, the former Bush administration education secretary who now serves as president of the Chamber’s U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation.
The news conference followed a wide-ranging panel by the governors and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) before a hall of about 200 business leaders. The governors all hail from states with unemployment well below the national average. Delaware’s unemployment rate is 6.8 percent; Nebraska’s is 3.9 percent; Utah’s is 6 percent; and Wisconsin’s is 6.7 percent.
National Journal’s Major Garrett moderated the discussion, which touched on jobs as well as other issues such as tort reform and the “fiscal cliff” approaching at the end of the year. At one point during the panel, Walker renewed his criticism of public worker benefits, which he described as “a virus.”
“The reality is, these benefits are like a virus that eats up more and more of our budget,” Walker told the hall. “And if you don’t deal with it, it’s just going to grow out of control.”
He also noted that when he first took office, he placed shingles on the state’s borders proclaiming that Wisconsin was “open for business.”
Walker took aim at what he called the “false choice” between cutting taxes and cutting core services, telling attendees that, “It’s not more money; it’s spending it more wisely.”
And he took time to praise Ryan, noting that the two grew up “about 15 miles” away from each other and hailing the budget committee chairman as “one of the few people, Republican or Democrat,” to take on the country’s budget challenges.
The panel, which was part of the Chamber’s annual jobs summit, came as the Chamber released the latest edition of its “Enterprising States” report. The report pointed to 10 “future boom states,” including North Dakota, Utah, Texas, Virginia, Wyoming, Washington State, Maryland, Colorado, South Dakota and Massachusetts.
Criteria for ranking the states included their long- and short-term job growth; their projected job growth; their median household income; and the education level of young workers.
Donohue said in his opening remarks that May’s “dismal unemployment report” notwithstanding, he remains upbeat about the country’s economic future.
“Why am I optimistic?” he asked. “First, because we’ve got proof that things are working. The 2012 Enterprising States study shows that the states that foster strong business environments and embrace innovation are bucking all of the national economic trends, they’re growing faster, and they’re adding more jobs.”
Speaking ahead of Donohue, National Chamber Foundation Fellow Joel Kotkin took a shot at Obama – and drew a few laughs from the crowd – as he introduced himself as “not one to say the private sector is doing great,” a reference to the president’s campaign-trail stumble late last week.
This post has been updated since it was first published.