What Wisconsin meant

at 12:43 PM ET, 08/17/2011


A sign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker hangs on a statue in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 10, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Six months after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, the political dust has (finally) settled in the Badger State.

All tolled, nine state Senators — six Republicans and three Democrats —were subject to recall elections for their role in the collective bargaining fight. Two, both Republicans, lost their seats. Republicans retained their majority in the chamber by a single seat. And, upwards of $40 million was spent — a stunning sum for state legislative contests.

So, what did it all mean for the political world — in Wisconsin and nationally — going forward?

The two parties, not surprisingly, disagree on who ultimately won the day in the recall fights. But one thing partisans on both sides believe is that the long term impact of what happened in Wisconsin is a hardening of partisanship on both sides of the aisle.

“In essence Wisconsin is a microcosm of the entire U.S. political scene — terribly and bitterly divided, with neither side in particularly good shape and the voters on the warpath,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin who is based in Madison.

Curt Anderson, a Republican media consultant who has worked extensively in Wisconsin, agreed. “The one thing that has certainly happened in Wisconsin is a polarization of sorts,” says Anderson. “Everyone has their partisan jersey on.”

Viewed through that lens, the Wisconsin recall fight amounted to the Badger State’s version of the the battle over raising the debt ceiling in Washington. (The two events played out on a remarkably similar time table too.)

It animated the bases of the two parties — turnout in Wisconsin was far higher than most people expected for the recall votes on Aug. 9 and Aug. 16 — and left voters who don’t closely identify with either party feeling alienated from and disenchanted with the political process.

And that reality leaves both sides with much work to be done over the coming months.

There’s little question that Walker has taken a major political hit over his first six months in office with his approval ratings sinking and the image of him as a ideological warrior now firmly in place.

In a Badger State poll conducted earlier this summer, nearly six in ten Wisconsin residents disapproved of how Walker was handling his job and just more than one in three (36 percent) were satisfied with the direction of the state.

Democratic strategists acknowledge that not winning back the Senate majority slowed momentum for the effort to recall Walker — he is not eligible for recall until he has spent a full year in office — but insisted that a recall vote was still likely even if the outcome was less than certain.

“ [Scott] Walker and [Florida Gov. Rick] Scott are the Obama’s of 2011,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang. “They misread [or] ignored the mandate from the voters, which actually is very simple — more jobs.”

If Walker can survive a recall election — or if Democrats fail to get one on the ballot next year — he may be in better political shape as he isn’t up for a second term until 2014, giving him plenty of time to court independents who are currently unhappy with him.

Walker is already showing signs of reaching out to the ideological middle; “With the uncertainty of the recalls over, the governor is looking forward to working together with the legislature and job creators to get more Wisconsinites back to work,” his spokesman told the Associated Press.

While Walker works to rehab his image in the state, national labor unions are doing some navel-gazing of their own.

Unions cast the collective bargaining fight as a fundamental challenge to the rights of workers across the country and told anyone who would listen that taking back control of the state Senate would send a signal to Republicans that organized labor retained significant power in politics and was not to be trifled with.

Coming up short — even by a single seat — then is a disappointment. And, it comes hard on the 2010 Arkansas Senate primary when national labor groups targeted Blanche Lincoln for defeat only to be disappointed.

Labor allies note that neither campaign was for naught. There are two less Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate as a result of the recalls and Lincoln is no longer in the U.S. Senate. (She lost the general election badly to now Sen. John Boozman.)

And, they insist that Wisconsin served as a wake-up call to their members that elections have consequences and that the awareness of what’s at stake in 2012 has been significantly heightened.

“The message from the Wisconsin recall fight Republicans picked in February is loud and clear: Attacking the interests of middle class working families and the politicians who defend them carries a hefty political price, and the voices of workers will not be silenced,” wrote Kelly Steele, a Democratic political operative who helped organize recall efforts in the state.

All true enough. But, as we wrote at the time, labor had built their Wisconsin campaign on taking back the state Senate not nearly taking back the state Senate.

Given the enormity of the political earthquake in Wisconsin over the past six months, it could take until the 2012 election (and maybe beyond) to puzzle out exactly what it meant for the state and the nation.

But, in the simplest terms possible, it’s clear that Wisconsin provided a preview of the campaign to come in 2012.

“What happened in Wisconsin is the start of a debate in this country over two paths that we can choose to take,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a former chairman of the Wisconsin state party.

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