In Wisconsin, the Left Picked a Fight—and Lost

It doesn't mean Obama is going to lose, but the failed attempt to recall Scott Walker gives Democrats and organized labor reason to fear an emboldened conservative agenda.


Updated 6/6/2012 8:26 a.m.

It's important to remember, as Democrats cope with their failure to topple Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday's recall, that this was a fight they chose.

Unlike the vast majority of elections, which occur on a regular schedule, the recall was a fight the left picked on purpose. They picked it because they thought they could win. And they were wrong.

It wasn't even close. In the final tally, Walker led his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by 53 percent to 46 percent.

The idea behind the recall effort was to send a message: a warning to conservatives across the country that there was a line not to be crossed when it came to messing with the hard-earned gains of public worker unions. By losing, however, the consortium of unions, progressives and Democrats that worked so ardently to send Walker packing may have sent the opposite message. If Walker can survive, what's to stop any other right-leaning governor from pushing the envelope?

"This really is a test case. The far right made Wisconsin its petri dish," said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action Wisconsin, a grassroots progressive group that supported the recall effort. Walker's win, he said, will embolden the Koch brothers and other national conservative funders to get ideologically sympathetic Republicans to push their agenda across the country.

"Wisconsin will not be the high water mark of the attack on unions, public employees, and the middle class," Kraig said. "You will see more Walker-like politicians elected in other states, and you will see more current governors taking this type of attack."

When I interviewed Walker a couple of months ago, that was his prediction, too, though he naturally didn't put it in quite those terms. If he prevailed in the recall, he told me, "It suggests to other elected officials that you can tackle tough issues, you can face the wrath of organized special interests like the public employee unions, and ultimately prevail," he said. "They're not going to be able to bully and intimidate people who are trying to act in the best interest of the taxpayers."

It's not only Republican governors, Walker noted, who are pushing to reform the pension, benefit and pay privileges enjoyed by public workers. He pointed to the efforts of Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, Lincoln Chafee (a liberal independent) in Rhode Island, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jerry Brown in California, all of whom have approached the issue of public sector pension reform, if in less inflammatory manner.

The results for the labor movement, of which the public sector is now the backbone, could be dire. Already, there are signs Walker has succeeded in crippling Wisconsin's unions, whose membership has sharply declined since his reforms made it easier for workers to opt out and harder for the groups to gain recognition. In just over a year, the union representing state workers has seen its membership drop by two-thirds, while the American Federation of Teachers has lost more than a third of the 17,000 members it formerly claimed in Wisconsin, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Does Walker's win mean President Obama is going to lose? Certainly not. Exit polls from Tuesday's vote showed the same electorate that retained Walker would have voted for Obama over Mitt Romney by a wide margin, 51 percent to 44 percent. (Though these exit polls appear to have initially underestimated Walker's winning margin, they were later adjusted to reflect the final vote, and pre-election polls found similar results.) Alec MacGillis has suggested that this may reflect a desire to maintain the status quo among independents satisfied with the general direction of the economy. And November's electorate won't be the same one that retained Walker.

But if the recall is not a harbinger of the presidential election, it is also not meaningless as a foretaste. The massive mobilization drive -- more Wisconsinites turned out for a special election in the middle of June than turned out for the November 2010 election, a shocking feat -- gave both parties a chance to test-drive and fine-tune their sophisticated voter-turnout operations, as well as a peek at what the other side is capable of. One Wisconsin Democrat involved in the presidential election told me the recall has been an invaluable opportunity to vet and refine voter lists. Republicans have similarly been boasting for weeks about the voter-contact operation they activated to get out the vote for the recall.

"The recall gives both sides a real opportunity to have a tuned-up machinery for voter ID and turnout they can carry forward," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll. "It's a proving ground for those operations going into the fall."

After protests a year ago February that packed 100,000 protesters into the Capitol in Madison, and a recall petition drive that netted nearly a million signatures, Democrats assumed they had a built-in advantage in the ground game -- the voter turnout operation for which union members have traditionally been the foot soldiers. Tuesday night showed that's not necessarily the case. So while the presidential election is undoubtedly a different beast, it's also clear Democrats can't count on enthusiasm and organization being on their side.

"The Democrats failed, after a year and a half of protests and all the time, energy, and dollars they spent trying to undo the 2010 election," said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin Republican consultant not involved in the recall fight. "There are going to be a bunch of demoralized Democrats running around Wisconsin. That's a morale problem for them that could have an impact on the presidential election."