After sixteen months of bitter wrangling over the direction not just of a state but of the national discourse about economic policy, budget priorities, the role of labor unions in the public sector and democracy itself, Wisconsin will decide today on whether to bounce Governor Scott Walker—the primary American proponent of a European-style austerity agenda based on cuts to wages, benefits, public services and public education—from the position he won in the 2010 “Republican Wave” election.
Walker is only the third governor in American history to face a recall election. And he is the first to be challenged by progressives. The previous recalls deposed a left-wing populist (in North Dakota in 1921) and a Democratic mandarin (in California in 2003). This one could remove a favorite of the Tea Party movement whose campaigns have been heavily financed by the billionaire Koch brothers and their right-wing allies.
At the same time, control for the Wisconsin legislature could shift to the Democrats in parallel recall challenges to Walker’s lieutenants.
Never before in American history has a state been in a position to shift control of the executive and legislative branches of state government in a single recall election.
Everything about the Wisconsin recall has been unprecedented.
So how will it finish? Will it finish?
Here’s what people need to know:
WISCONSIN IS ALWAYS A CLOSELY DIVIDED STATE
Though the recall election was forced by the mass movement that developed to protest Walker’s anti-labor policies— including a law that stripped most public employees of essential collective-bargaining rights—that does not mean that everyone in Wisconsin is opposed to the governor. More than 900,000 Wisconsinites signed petitions to recall Walker—more than 40 percent of the electorate from the 2010 gubernatorial election—while more than 800,000 signed petitions to recall his lieutenant governor and another 100,000 petitioned to recall four Republican state senators.
That’s incredible, and if everyone who signed a recall petition votes, Democrats will be well on their way to deposing Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Senator Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald and three of his colleagues.
But not all the way there.
The truth is that Wisconsin has since the 1950s been a closely divided state, politically. This is a state of extremes, home to passionate progressives like former Governor and Senator Gaylord Nelson and former Senator Russ Feingold, and conservative firebrands such as former Senator Joe McCarthy and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
Elections are closely fought. In 2000, Al Gore won the state by just a little more than 5,000 votes out of 2.6 million cast. In 2004, John Kerry won by barely 11,000 votes out of almost 3 million cast.
When both sides are mobilized—as they are this year—Wisconsin elections are decided by the narrowest of margins.