But there is more at stake on June 5 than the question of whether Walker remains in office or is replaced by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. To Bradtke, saving Walker’s job is a crucial step toward making Wisconsin a competitive battleground in November and electing a Republican president who deals with budgetary issues nationally the way Walker has in Wisconsin.
The recall contest “is the second most important election in the country this year,” he said.
Whether Wisconsin is competitive in November could make a major difference in the presidential campaign. If Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, can win one or more of the industrial states — Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania — that have consistently voted Democratic in presidential races, he would have a much easier path to the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.
At first blush, Wisconsin may look daunting for Romney. The state has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan three decades ago. But that is a deceptive indicator of the state’s politics overall. Four years ago, Barack Obama coasted to victory here by a margin of 14 points, but George W. Bush nearly won the state in 2000 and 2004. And Republicans scored major victories in 2010, taking over the governor’s office and a Senate seat.
Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser in both those campaigns, argues that the results of Walker’s recall election and the margin of the vote will offer the first genuine clues as to whether Wisconsin’s political environment is similar to four years ago or has reverted to the nail-biter status of 2000 and 2004. “This will give a very clear indication of whether Wisconsin and the industrial Midwest will be up for grabs this year,” Rove said.
Echoes of ’04?
Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic chairman, said he remains confident the grass-roots energy that triggered the recall can carry Barrett to victory. But he does not need to wait for the results of the recall election to predict that the state will be a battleground this fall, despite what happened here in 2008.
“I think this is Kerry-Bush Wisconsin ’04,” he said, referring to the presidential contest that ended up with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) winning the state by just two-tenths of a percentage point — 11,000 votes out of 3 million cast.
“This electorate was never as blue as it was in ’08 and never as red as it was in ’10,” Tate added. “Those were dynamic swings that were subject to national momentum. This is now and I think will remain a state that is very, very closely divided.”