Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) escaped a recall effort championed by organized labor and touted by many within both parties as a preview of the fall presidential campaign in the Badger State.
How much — or little — Walker’s victory tells us about the state of play heading into the fall election remains an open question that won’t be easily answerable for days or even weeks (or months).
What we can answer — or come close to answering — is why Walker won. We put that question to a number of Democratic and Republican strategists in the final days of the recall campaign and, out of those conversations, developed a clear image of what went right for the incumbent — or, as accurately, wrong for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) — that led to tonight’s result.
It’s always important to remember that no win/loss in politics is ever (or, at least, very rarely) attributable to a single factor and so all of the reasons we list below worked together to ensure that Walker won and Barrett didn’t.
* The Democratic primary: To hear those who worked in the trenches of the recall tell it, the fact that Democrats had a contested primary between Barrett and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk bears considerable responsibility for Walker’s victory.
Not only did the primary take place less than a month before the general recall election but organized labor spent millions in support of Falk (and against Barrett), spending that many Democrats believe weakened the eventual nominee. Democratic pollsters insisted that Walker was languishing in the early spring but rebounded as Barrett and Falk fought amongst themselves in the primary.
* Money: As of Monday, more than $63 million has been spent on the recall fight with Walker and his conservative allies vastly outspending Barrett and other Democratic-aligned groups.
Being outspent 10-1 (or worse) is never a recipe for success in a race. Democrats cried foul over Walker’s exploitation of a loophole that allowed him to collect unlimited contributions prior to the official announcement of the recall in late March. Of course, Democrats also pushed the recall and Walker played by the rules of the game — making what he did strategically smart rather than underhandedly nefarious.
* 2010: There was considerable internal discussion and disagreement between Washington and Wisconsin Democrats (and organized labor) about whether to push for a recall election this summer or wait until 2014 for a chance to unseat Walker. (Washington Democrats broadly favored the latter option, Wisconsin Democrats and labor the former).
As the recall played out, two things became clear: 1) There were almost no one undecided in the race and 2) those few souls who were undecided tended to resist the recall effort on the grounds that Walker had just been elected in 2010.
The sentiment among those undecided voters, according to several Democrats closely monitoring the data, was that while they didn’t love Walker they thought he deserved a full term before passing final judgment on how he was performing.
That Democrats nominated Barrett — the same man who Walker had defeated in the 2010 general election — added to the sense among independents and undecided voters that this was primarily a partisan push to re-do a race in which they didn’t like the final result.
* Milwaukee: As is true in any state that has a single dominant city — in terms of population, profile etc. — there is resentment toward that city from everyone who doesn’t live in it.
Barrett’s ties to Milwaukee, therefore, wound up hurting him far worse than many Democrats expected at the start of the contest. And, Walker smartly cast Milwaukee not only as lagging the overall economic recovery of the state but also as badly crime-riddled in television ads.
The contrast Walker effectively drove between the general direction of the state and that of the city of Milwaukee played into fears/doubts/dislikes that many people already had about the “Land of Plenty” (with apologies to Alice Cooper).
* Walker’s focus: Say what you will about his policies but Walker is a damn good campaigner and, from the moment he knew a recall election was likely, he did everything he could to ensure he came out on top.
From fundraising to moderating his image in the wake of the collective bargaining war, Walker understood from very early on the threat that the recall posed to him. Unlike other politicians ( Dick Lugar, we are looking at you) who got caught off guard by the forces aligned against him, Walker was ready and waiting. And it paid off.