Mitt Romney and the Republican Party now have their model for the 2012 election. In a race that pitted each party's political base against the other, Gov. Scott Walker won the Wisconsin recall Tuesday because he did the better job of unifying his party and mobilizing his supporters.
Walker's defeat of Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, is by no means a reason for President Obama to panic. Preliminary exit polls showed him holding a comfortable edge over Romney in an important battleground state, and, regardless, the race's unique circumstances -- including a huge GOP money advantage -- make drawing sweeping conclusions for November difficult.
But the Republican victory suggests it's possible for the party, following Walker's example, to galvanize against Democrats and win even in the face of a determined effort by the opposition.
Walker's support has been well-rounded throughout the campaign, coming from ends of the GOP spectrum often at odds with one another. Establishment figures such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have all stumped with the governor and praised his policies. Tea party activists also stood by Walker "“ one Republican Senate candidate, Eric Hovde, even ran an ad on the governor's behalf.
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"I've never seen a U.S. Senate candidate run an ad for another candidate," said Scott Becher, a GOP public relations consultant. "I can't think of another time when you have other candidates coming together on one message. I think it's historic."
Romney can count on similar support from the GOP establishment. It's less clear if he can expect excitement among the conservative rank-and-file who view his past moderate positions with suspicion: A CNN/ORC poll released last week found only 47 percent of Romney supporters "strongly" support the unofficial GOP nominee, far lower than the 62 percent who strongly back the president.
But the recall has revealed an enthusiasm among Republican activists dedicated to knocking out Barrett, energy Romney "“ who notably didn't campaign in Wisconsin ahead of the recall -- could harness for the general election. He, like Walker, must mobilize his own base to win an election marked by a sharp ideological contrast that has left relatively few voters up for grabs in the political middle.
"I think clearly there's been not just a unity of Republicans, there's been intensity of Republicans, an excitement of Republicans, which has been one of more important factors of this race," said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin-based GOP strategist. "They were ready to walk on coals to make sure (Walker) was successful."
Their intensity spilled over in several key areas where Walker equaled or improved his 2010 performance, according to county returns. In Brown County, which Obama won in 2008 and Walker carried with 56 percent of the vote in the midterm wave, the governor was nearing 60 percent support, with over 90 percent of precincts reporting. In GOP-heavy Waukesha County, Walker hadn't ceded any ground since 2008, and even in Democratic-dominated Dane County, Walker was running ahead of his 2010 pace. Labor did an impressive job turning out its core supporters for Barrett, but was still outgunned by the GOP base.
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Romney clearly reveled in the victory, declaring Walker's success is proof voters demand a cost-cutting approach to government. "Tonight's results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin," he said in a statement. "Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back "“ and prevail "“ against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.
The GOP's unity differed considerably from the splintered Democratic operation, which, while united in its larger desire to unseat Walker, disagreed about when and how to do so.
Democrats riled by Walker's controversial 2011 measure to curb collective bargaining for government workers had been thirsting for a recall of the governor for over a year. Voters recalled two Republican state senators from office in 2011 and liberal activists moved swiftly toward ousting Walker himself shortly thereafter. They submitted 1 million signatures on petitions to recall the governor in January, roughly double what they need to force an election less than two years into Walker's first term.
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.