MADISON, Wis. — It’s not yet clear whether Wisconsin will become a presidential battleground in November. But at least for the next two months, the Badger State will be at the epicenter of American politics as voters decide for only the third time in the nation’s history whether to recall a sitting governor.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been in office for only 15 months, and his state has been in turmoil virtually the entire time. His decision to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for public employee unions has touched off a political war that has left Wisconsin as polarized as any state in the country.
This homegrown fight has national implications. Walker has become a symbol of Republican governance in today’s GOP. He is campaigning energetically and unapologetically, arguing that he took courageous action to deal with his state’s severe fiscal problems — the same thing Republicans are saying should be done nationally. Walker contends that his policies have been good for the state’s economy and its taxpayers.
His opponents see those policies almost exactly the way President Obama described the federal budget written by Walker’s Wisconsin soul mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and passed recently by the House. Last week, Obama called the Ryan budget a radical document that would put the country in decline. That echoes the view of Walker’s opponents, who say his actions have hurt the state and unfairly punished state employees.
For those who complain about the length of political campaigns, Wisconsin will be the antidote. The recall campaign will be short, if not sweet. Democrats will select their nominee in a May 8 primary that pits Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett against former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk. The winner will face Walker on June 5.
The recall election will be costly and consequential. Tens of millions of dollars will be spent in the battle to unseat Walker, and both sides are gearing up. The governor was able to take advantage of a loophole in state campaign finance law that allowed him to accept individual contributions, normally limited to $10,000, in unlimited amounts while the recall petition process was underway. Much of that money has come from outside the state.
Walker also will have ample support from the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, the former Wisconsin GOP chair, pledged last weekend, “Anything Scott Walker needs from the RNC, Scott Walker is going to get from the RNC.”
Walker has justified his fundraising spree by arguing that he faces a barrage of outside money that will be raised and spent by public employee unions. He has cast the campaign not as Republican vs. Democrat but as Walker vs. the unions. At a Republican dinner in Waukesha County a week ago, he summed up the choice this way: “Do we have a governor who is owned by the big government union and the out-of-state special interests, or do we want a governor who firmly stands with the hardworking taxpayers of this great state?”
There is no question that the unions — led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union and the state’s teachers union — are doing everything they can to oust Walker. But much of the energy behind the recall is homegrown.
Anti-Walker forces needed about 550,000 valid signatures on their petitions to get the recall on the ballot. With the help of 30,000 petition carriers who crisscrossed the state, they collected more than 900,000. Rarely has a political party in a state this size begun a campaign with 900,000 identified supporters — names, addresses and in many cases e-mail addresses. To put that in perspective, Walker got 1.1 million votes when he was elected in 2010.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party has almost 150,000 donors, a remarkable number for any state party. A majority of them are from Wisconsin, but the state party has received contributions from every state, according to Chairman Mike Tate. Officials expect that the state party will raise and spend more in behalf of its nominee than that candidate will spend on his or her own. The unions could out-spend both.
Republicans already have made a million calls this year to recruit their own army. Priebus issued a memo early last week arguing that the party is building an organization that will carry Walker to victory and lay the groundwork for a successful fall campaign against Obama. Democrats question whether Obama, who easily won the state in 2008, will face real competition in the fall, but Republicans will be geared up for both elections.
Walker is a hero to Republicans. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were the featured attractions at the Waukesha County dinner before last week’s primary, but it was Walker who generated by far the most energy in the room. He was greeted with several standing ovations.
Republicans don’t just approve of the job he’s doing; they enthusiastically embrace him. More than nine in 10 “strongly approve” of the job he is doing, according to exit polls from Tuesday’s presidential primary. Among strong tea party supporters, strong approval is 94 percent. Among very conservative voters, it’s 92 percent.
Democrats dislike him with almost equal intensity. In Wisconsin, there is virtually no middle left. But the June election will be fought over the relative handful of voters who constitute that middle.
Some Democrats would have preferred that there be no recall campaign against Walker, among them some of Obama’s political advisers. They know the election will be a drain on resources, that it will deepen the polarization in the state and that it could have unintended consequences.
Already, Democrats are worried about the upcoming primary between Barrett and Falk. Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010, is better known statewide but jumped into the race at the last moment. He has a troubled relationship with the unions, having antagonized them as mayor. In the primary, the public employee unions are backing Falk.
Democrats privately fear that a bloody primary campaign will help Walker. Falk announced her candidacy early, and an independent expenditure committee funded by the unions already has spent more than $1.5 million to boost her standing. The unions now have started to attack Barrett as the primary campaign heats up.
A month of constant intraparty warfare could leave the Democratic nominee weakened. If Falk wins, Walker will cast her as a tool of the unions who would do their bidding as governor. She has pledged to veto any budget that does not include the restoration of collective-bargaining rights for state workers, a commitment even some Democrats privately question. If Barrett wins, he is likely to have little money for the general election. He would need the support of the unions, but it’s not certain he would receive it wholeheartedly, despite labor’s dislike of Walker.
All that explains why last week’s presidential primary, for all its implications in the GOP race, was seen in Wisconsin almost as a distraction. The main event is now at center stage.
To read Dan Balz’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/politics.