Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has reason to be encouraged by the vote yesterday. In a race that organized labor has made out to be all about Walker’s public employee union reforms the chosen candidate of Big Labor Kathleen Falk lost, and lost badly (58 to 34 percent) to Tom Barrett, the former mayor of Milwaukee and Walker's defeated opponent in 2010. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told me this morning: “People aren’t listening to their union.”
Even liberal media outlets can see the handwriting on the wall. The Daily Beast reports: “Barrett had only entered the race at the end of March and still managed to overwhelm months of efforts on behalf of Falk by organized labor, which had anointed her as its chosen candidate when the Walker recall movement was still in its infancy.” Moreover, given that Walker turned out more votes (about 626,000) than did Barrett and Falk combined (about 619,000) , the Democrats are discovering that may have an enthusiasm problem, as the Daily Beast acknowledges:
Democrats may try to console themselves that the primary just wasn’t that exciting. A primary is not a general election, and neither Barrett nor Falk were considered strong candidates. Both had lost two statewide elections, with Barrett holding the slightest advantage in electability for having made it to the general election in one of them. Then again, an unopposed primary is fair less exciting than one that is simply dull. The fact that Walker turned out so many Republicans shows a significant enthusiasm gap in June’s coming recall.
The Journal-Sentinel put it this way: “It was an unexpected turnout bomb, a demonstration of Walker’s greatest political asset, even greater than his considerable money advantage — the ability to mobilize his base.”
Democrats have their hands full now that Wisconsin voters have had a year to observe the results of Walker’s reforms. The recall polls are close on the horserace, but Walker’s policies are proving to be popular. Ryan relates a conversation with a local school board official in his state: “In one year the school district saved $1.6 million in healthcare costs. There are accountability groups of teachers that [could not have been] achieved without Scott’s reforms. Property taxes have been cut. There is $1 billion in savings in government spending. There is tax payer savings without teacher layoffs. All the apocalyptic predictions have not come to fruition.”
And that is the rub for Wisconsin Democrats and their organized labor patrons. They are pouring some $40 million into the state. As yet, the excitement for ousting the governor has yet to manifest itself. And to boot, the voters seem to be considering matters on their own, declining to take direction from their union bosses. In the absence of a doomsday painted by Democrats will voters really toss a sitting governor?
The stakes could not be higher. A loss would be humiliating for Big Labor and certainly put Wisconsin in play in the presidential race. A defeat for Walker would be a flashing red warning to politicians: Don’t attack your state’s fiscal problems. As Ryan put it, “Courage will be on the ballot.”