Scott Walker became the first governor to defeat a recall in US history. Unions and progressives thought they could take advantage of the uproar Gov. Walker caused when he forced his collective bargaining reforms through Wisconsin’s legislature. As the petition driven recall gained momentum and became a national story both sides banked on using victory as a referendum on the other party’s policies. It was a high stakes gamble that Democrats lost because they didn’t have the money or the political will behind them.
The plan for victory, as Gov. Walker told one of his largest donors, was to ‘divide and conquer’ the unions. In his concession speech Democrat Tom Barrett acknowledged the state is in fact “deeply divided”. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus wasted no time harnessing the win and attempting to redirect its energy toward Obama, "this was a message election about spending and debt and the size of government. That will be the central question of November." That message was firmly ingrained into our political discourse 2010. Add in a slow recovery and high unemployment, and it should have been apparent even in progressive Wisconsin that running to maintain or increase public sector benefits was a hard sale at best. Granted pre-election polling was within the margin of error, the true results delivered a demoralizing defeat of 8%. From the outside social media and mass media dumbed the election down to a partisan popularity contest while Wisconsin voters were actually voting on the merits of differing views of how to close that state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit. Now we can look forward to seeing Wisconsin‘s failed gubernatorial recall spun as a referendum on everything from the Affordable Care Act to Gay Marriage.
Congratulating Walker, Mitt Romney exclaimed, “This victory will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.” He’s right, Walker’s 13 billionaire donors from out of state along with other big moneyed interest heard it loud and clear – on to November. In this case it wasn’t super PACs but an obscure statute that allowed the incumbent governor to raise over $30 million by removing caps on individual donations. Either way this election is just a preview of what a post-Citizens United no donations barred campaign will look like.
The latest polls show Obama is ahead in the Badger State and exit polls from yesterday’s recall have him up by double digits. That didn’t stop RNC chairman from calling the loss an “absolute disaster for Obama”. The President did endorse Barrett but avoided campaigning for him in the state probably realizing that the risk was greater than the reward. Wisconsin Democrats wishing they had drawn the same conclusion will have to shift gears and reevaluate after this unforced error. As for organized labor they will have to brace for the inevitable consequences of voters’ reaffirming Walker’s plan for cuts. The lesson here is not that political victories will be taken out of context but that we are in a new era of campaign fundraising and Democrats will be unable to compete with or without unions. Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee has this advice.
You can't spend all your money on television. You've got to spend it on the ground, that's the most important thing to take away from Wisconsin. Investing on the ground more Democratic voters the polls. Even if it wasn't quite enough, people have to realize that's where you begin. That's how you build the base for winning next time.