What happened in Wisconsin (and what it means)

at 12:30 PM ET, 04/06/2011


A protestor holds a sign during a demonstration inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 11, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Less than a month after the contentious budget fight concluded in Wisconsin, voters went to the polls across the state in an off-year election that was cast by Democrats as a referendum on the brief tenure of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republicans in the state legislature.

The results suggest that, at a minimum, the budget standoff energized Democratic voters and, at a maximum, could well have played a role in tipping the ideological composition of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court.

In the state Supreme Court race, incumbent David Prosser was trailing challenger Joanne Kloppenburg by 224 votes with all but three of the state’s 3,630 precincts counted. (The race is officially non partisan but Prosser was supported by national Republican groups and Kloppenburg by Democratic ones.)

And, in the Milwaukee County Executive race to replace Walker, Democrat Chris Abele beat Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone by a surprisingly large margin in a campaign where Abele ran a series of ads casting Stone as a Walker clone.

“It is clear the backlash against Walker and those who share his extreme agenda is mobilized and highly-motivated,” said Kelly Steele, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who is helping coordinate organized labor’s efforts in the state.

Viewed broadly, it’s seems obvious that the budget kerfuffle in the state had somesignificant role in the narrowing of both the state Supreme Court race and the Milwaukee County Executive contests.

In the Feb. 15 primaries for both offices — just four days after Walker introduced his collective bargaining bill into the state legislature — the Republican-aligned candidate was the clear frontrunner.

Prosser took 55 percent to 25 percent for Kloppenburg in the court contest and in the county executive race Stone led Abele by by 25 points.

The biggest change in the seven weeks between the primary and general election was clearly the high-profile showdown between Walker and state Senate Democrats that eventually ended when, through a bit of parliamentary procedure, Senate Republicans passed the bill without any Democrats present.

Democratic strategists insist the move, which we wrote about at the time as a genuine political gamble by Walker and Senate Republicans, fired up their base in a way that proved decisive in these targeted races.

Turnout was nearly 1.5 million on Tuesday night as outside interest groups on both sides poured millions of dollars into a race that could change a 4-3 conservative majority in the body to a 4-3 liberal one with a ruling on the Walker collective bargaining bill looming. That marked a massive turnout increase as compared to past state Supreme Court races, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert.

“The big change last night from November [2010] is a lot of the working class/small town counties in Western Wisconsin-- going up toward the Twin Cities-- they swung back toward 2006/2008 performance, and away from 2010,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Madison but not working on the state Supreme Court race.

But, there were other mitigating factors that could well have also played a part in what happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

* While both Prosser and Stone easily won the open primaries in February, the remaining candidates in the field were aligned with Democrats — meaning that many of those voters who didn’t vote for either Abele or Kloppenburg the first time around should have been expected to come home as they did in a more partisan election.

* In the county executive race, Abele spent better than $1 million of his own money on the race — overwhelming Stone’s ability to match him dollar for dollar on the airwaves.

* Walker did spend eight years as Milwaukee County Executive before winning the governorship in 2010 but in that governor’s race, he lost Milwaukee County by roughly the same margin Stone lost to Abele on Tuesday — suggesting that the fundamental Democratic underpinnings of the area assert themselves in contested statewide elections.

* Though 2010 was a watershed election for Wisconsin Republicans, GOP consultant Curt Anderson notes that both Walker and Sen. Ron Johnson (R) won their races with 52 percent — not exactly landslides — and that the last time a Republican presidential candidate won the Badger State was Ronald Reagan in 1984. Those results prove , argued Anderson, that the state is fundamentally Democratic even in the best Republican years.

It’sn ot easy to draw overly-broad conclusions about what Tuesday night’s results mean for Wisconsin or the broader electoral landscape — particularly given the closeness of the Supreme Court race that seems heads to a certain recount.

Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who has done extensive work in the state, said that the elections results were “not a stunning rebuke of Walker and Republicans given the swing nature of the state.” Yang added, however, that the result “showed that the [Republican] agenda of anti-collective bargaining in Wisconsin and tough cuts budget in D.C. is not especially strong or popular right now, and is likely to hurt the GOP more than help it.”

 
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