Organized labor, which isn't a big fan of Barrett's policies as mayor, lined up behind Kathleen Falk, a liberal candidate who entered the race for the Democratic nomination weeks before the Milwaukee mayor. She fired up her base by promising to veto any budget that didn't end Walker's anti-collective bargaining measure while Barrett, tacking to the middle, did not.
A labor-dominated coalition spent over $4 million trying to Falk win a primary she ultimately lost to Barrett by double digits. None of the money was spent sullying the mayor's record, but it was a substantial sum dedicated to a pre-general election intraparty fight. Barrett, who from day one ran to end Wisconsin's "civil war," and has some residual name ID form his 2010 campaign against Walker always appeared to be the more electable election candidate.
"I don't understand unions spent many millions of dollars on Kathleen Falk when it was clear to any observer she was going to lose primary," Graul said. "I don't understand why Democrats watched this recall process without a consensus candidate that unified and energized their party. There were a lot of tactic decision on the Democrats' side that have been quite perplexing."
The primary wasn't as bruising as it could have been, and Barrett emerged from the primary in pretty good shape. But in a race that was preordained to be a nail-biter, the challenger needed all the help he could get. He received no direct assistance from Obama, who tweeted his support on the eve of Election Day but didn't stump for Barrett or appear in any ads. The Democratic National Committee made a lighter footprint than some in-state Democrats would have liked to see.
A heavier political investment in the recall campaign would have been immensely risky for the White House. Committing the president's personal capital to what was at best a 50-50 proposition in a bitterly divided state he needs to win this fall was less than ideal course for his team. Wisconsin, which has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in the last six presidential elections, is now certain to be prime battleground territory for Romney and Obama.
Democrats, of course, argue the president's re-election will unify the party's factions, and caution against extrapolating Tuesday's results to Election Day. Voters are wary of ending an officeholder's tenure early, they say, particularly when many of them are already fatigued by a plethora of heated elections since 2010. Democrats were also heavily outspent by an array of conservative outside groups, an imbalance they likely won't face in the presidential race. And exit polls suggest at least for now, Wisconsin voters trust Obama more than Romney to handle the economy and help the middle class.
"One has to be extremely careful in applying what happened towards 2012," said Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director. "There probably will be strands that can be pulled out on how to think about 2012 better than we did before, but it's such a different election."
Wisconsin voters with a union member in their household turned out in consistent levels in 2008 and 2010 (26 percent, according to exit poll data), even though both elections were waves for different parties. On Tuesday, voters with a union member in the household accounted for 33 percent of the electorate, according to preliminary exit poll data. They gave Barrett a clear majority of their support. It still wasn't enough.