In the end, it wasn’t even close.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defeated Democratic challenger Tom Barrett by 53%-46%, just about the same margin by which he prevailed in 2010. But the spread was much higher than many pundits had predicted, and shocked Democrats and Walker’s union opponents.
The rare recall election—there have been three in US history, and Walker is the only governor to have survived one—capped 17 months of turmoil. Walker rammed tough anti-labor measures through a newly elected Republican state legislature, most notably a limit on the collective bargaining rights of some public unions.
That caused Democratic legislators to hide in neighboring Illinois for three weeks while progressives and union supporters marched on Madison, the state capital. Walker’s opponents first organized a recall of some state senators who supported the governor’s measures, then targeted Walker himself as nearly a million signatures were gathered to recall him.
In the last few months, both parties mobilized, raising millions of dollars and mounting get-out-the-vote campaigns that pushed turnout to presidential-election levels. Result: Wisconsin voters gave Walker a mandate to finish his first term.
So, why did Walker win and what does it mean?
- Voters didn’t want a rerun of 2010. Many also viewed a recall as an extreme measure to be taken only when officials had committed malfeasance. And they were weary of all the fighting.
- The two sides were very polarized, with maybe 90% of the votes locked in before Barrett emerged as the Democratic candidate in May. So, it was all about mobilizing partisans rather than persuading the few independents who hadn’t made up their minds.
- Still, Walker’s supporters outspent his opponents by seven to one, and nearly 70% of his contributions came from out of state, as the Republican National Committee and conservative donors saw Wisconsin as a watershed. President Obama, however, avoided the state, and unions just couldn’t match Walker’s firepower.
- The Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision, which was supposed to level the playing field between corporate and union political donors, has given a huge financial advantage to corporations and the super-rich. Walker’s reforms have decimated unions’ membership and financial clout, and Democrats are worried they’ll lose their biggest source of campaign cash if other states follow suit.
- Most voters may not have supported stripping public unions’ collective-bargaining rights, but they recognized that something had to be done to curb union-negotiated pensions and health care benefits, which have become a big drain on taxpayers and financially strapped states.
I hope Walker’s victory will encourage him to tone it down a bit. He made some gestures towards reconciling with Democrats, saying Tuesday “we’re both going to be committed to talking together…and working together.”
“Bringing our state together will take some time,” he conceded, adding, “there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Sounds good, but Walker is in a much stronger position now and maintains his firm majority in the legislature. Look for him to keep his promises to his big donors to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state and, of course, cut taxes.
So, although the temperature in Madison may cool, the divisions will remain. And if Gov. Walker has learned anything, it may be: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
One of Wisconsin’s most famous figures, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, immortalized that phrase. And it’s just as true in politics as in football.