Can Mitt Romney match Wisconsin’s Scott Walker?

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent June 6, 2012

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker provided a template for Republicans looking ahead to the presidential race with his victory in Tuesday’s recall election: big money, powerful organization and enormous enthusiasm among his base. Can Mitt Romney match that in November?

Both sides will examine the results for clues as to whether Wisconsin, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984 but has been fiercely competitive in two of the past three elections, will again become a true battleground. If it is as competitive as it was in 2000 and 2004, the electoral map will be far more challenging for President Obama.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

In defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker dealt a sizable blow to Wisconsin Democrats, progressives and the ranks of organized labor, who together threw everything they could into the effort to send the governor home before his term was half finished. Whether he significantly damaged the president, who kept his distance from the contest, is less clear.

Romney seized on the results and claimed broader implications.

“People in what many have considered a blue state . . . said, ‘We’ve seen a conservative governor, he cut back on the scale of government and has held down taxes and stood up to the public-sector unions, and we want more of that, not less of it,’ ” the Republican presidential candidate said in a telephone question-and-answer session with thousands of business leaders on Wednesday afternoon.

Romney can hope to replicate Walker’s model in two areas. The first is money. Walker raised more than $30 million for his recall campaign, including some donations that exceeded the normal limits because of the laws governing recall elections. Barrett brought in almost $4 million. Romney won’t amass significantly more than Obama, but he can count on super PACs to give him an overall advantage.

Obama began the campaign more than a year ago amid assumptions that he would easily raise more than his Republican opponent. But his advisers worry that they will be heavily outspent by GOP super PACs. Other than the economy, that potential funding disparity is the campaign’s biggest concern. Money may not decide the election, but Romney and the Republicans appear to have the edge there.

Walker’s victory was a party victory. The Republican Governors Association spent more than $9 million on his behalf. The Republican National Committee — led by Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chairman — and the state Republican Party combined for a total effort to mobilize voters. All that paid dividends in defining Barrett and building an organization that proved superior to what many Democrats considered a fine get-out-the-vote operation of their own that was run by their party and the unions.

Democrats were divided over the wisdom of going ahead with the recall effort, although given the determination by their rank and file in Wisconsin, there was no way to stop it from happening. Obama campaign officials worried that it would take resources and energy away from the presidential race. The Democratic National Committee drew criticism for not backing Barrett more aggressively. Had the outcome been closer, Obama would have faced a backlash for not campaigning on behalf of the Democrat.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the results would not reverberate beyond Walker’s race. “I certainly wouldn’t read much into yesterday’s result beyond its effect on who’s occupying the governor’s seat in Wisconsin,” he said.

DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said before the election that the recall effort would be a “dry run” for the Democrats’ ground operation for November. What Republicans showed in Wisconsin on Tuesday was that they were better able to mobilize voters, at least in this contest. Democrats doubt they will be able do that elsewhere. Obama officials say they see little evidence that Romney is as well organized as they are in battleground states. But the Wisconsin effort gave the GOP something to build on.

Walker’s victory was also very much a personal one. To Wisconsin Republicans, the governor is a hero. Now he may be one nationally as well. When he appeared at a GOP dinner with Romney and then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum a few days before the Wisconsin primaries in April, he was the most popular politician in the room by far. Wisconsin Republicans may admire Romney, but their enthusiasm for him doesn’t match their affection for Walker. He will need some of that Walker enthusiasm if he hopes to win the state in November.

There is one other important element to the Walker template for Republicans: conviction. The governor took a controversial position in going after labor unions as part of his effort to lower the state’s deficit. In the face of a huge backlash, he stood behind what he did. He acknowledged that he hadn’t thought enough about how to sell his program and paid a price for it that won’t be erased by Tuesday’s victory. But he did not back away from the changes he implemented.

That makes Walker the kind of conviction politician that many Republicans want their leaders to be — a model that some other GOP governors emulate. It is what many voters thought was missing in Romney during the primaries. Wisconsin Republicans were willing to go to almost any lengths to keep Walker in office. It’s questionable that they will do as much for Romney. His hope still rests on his ability to fuel and channel the anti-Obama anger in the party’s base as the chief motivator in November.

If Tuesday’s results buoyed Republican hopes for the presidential election, exit polls offered counter evidence that Obama may still hold advantages in Wisconsin as the campaign heats up. When voters who turned out Tuesday were asked whom they will support in the presidential election, Obama ran ahead of Romney, although his margin was short of the 14 points by which he won the state in 2008.

Overall, about 17 percent of Walker voters said they will back the president. Well over half described themselves as independents — disproportionately more than in the overall electorate on Tuesday — and more than half were moderates. Overall, independents made up a larger share of the electorate on Tuesday, and Walker won them, but by a somewhat smaller margin than in 2010.

A plurality of Wisconsin voters also judged Obama superior to Romney in his ability to help the middle class. The president held a narrow advantage on who would be better at improving the economy. A memo from the Obama campaign’s Wisconsin director that was issued overnight noted, “There hasn’t been a single poll that shows Romney ahead of the president in Wisconsin.”

Walker and Obama actually share something in common. The governor did not back down from the most controversial elements of his platform, but he sought to avoid throwing them in voters’ faces. Instead, his main message was similar to what the president has been using as he campaigns nationwide: We’ve made progress, things are a little better, don’t go back to where we were before I came into office.

Partisans on both sides described Tuesday’s recall vote as the second most important election in the country this year, behind the presidential race. It lived up to those expectations, and Walker exceeded expectations with his victory. It was not a referendum on the president. That election is coming soon enough.

For more columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.

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