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.
So, despite the fury at Walker, he could win because he has energized his Republican base. And it is a big one.
WILL WALKER WIN?
That’s what Walker and his amen corner in the media say will happen. They got some good poll numbers in mid-May and parlayed them into a sense of inevitability.
But the only people who buy the argument that Walker is a safe bet to win are national pundits who have not been near Wisconsin.
On the ground in Wisconsin, Democrats and Republicans agree that the race is very close. The pollsters agree: even those who say Walker is ahead agree that his “lead” is well within the margin of error. The latest public poll has the governor up by three points, while internal party polls have shown a dead heat.
WHAT WILL WIN IT?
Walker’s money has certainly helped him.
He acknowledges raising more than $30 million and final figures will probably put him closer to $40 million. His allies—the billionaire Koch Brothers, advocates for privatization of education—will end up spending $20 million more on so-called “independent” expenditures and other schemes to advance this candidacy.
Even with significant union support, Barrett’s campaign will end up being outspent by at least six to one. His allies will spend millions more. But the Republican advantage is unprecedented in the modern history of statewide elections.
However, Barrett has the advantage of a remarkable grassroots mobilization on his behalf. It is estimated that, by the time the polls close, Barrett backers and their allies will have knocked on 1.2 million doors. Over the weekend, in stops in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine, Burlington and Baraboo—communities of every size, character and partisan make-up—I saw thousands of activists working phone banks, knocking on doors and distributing literature.
Unions often talk about their “superior ground game.” This time, as AFSCME Council 24 director Marty Beil says, “It’s for real.” And it is the key to Barrett’s viability.
WHERE DOES BARRETT HAVE TO MOBILIZE VOTERS?
While the Democrat has to renew his party’s appeal statewide—after the disastrous 2010 election—his primary focus is on the Democratic heartlands of Dane County (Madison) and Milwaukee County, as well as industrial cities such as Sheboygan and Racine.
Statewide, turnout fell from 69 percent in the very strong Democratic year of 2008 to 49 percent in the very Republican year of 2010.
Much of the falloff came within the city of Milwaukee, where 90,000 people who did vote in 2008 did not vote in 2010. Countywide, 134,000 people who voted in 2008 did not vote in 2010.
Scott Walker’s winning margin in 2010 was 124,000 votes. A presidential-level turnout in Milwaukee County could reverse it with 10,000 votes to spare.
Will that happen? Probably not. Milwaukee turnout will need to be accentuated by a spike in turnout in Racine, a historical manufacturing city south of Milwaukee where turnout in 2010 was way off from 2008.
DOES TOM BARRETT KNOW THIS?
Yes. His final schedule stops today are in Milwaukee and Racine.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson is on the same rotation.
Bill Clinton came to Milwaukee last Friday.
SURELY THEY ARE RELYING ON VOTER FRAUD?
Governor Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus have been claiming that Wisconsin has a major problem with voter fraud. Both have suggested that Republicans have been cheated out of as much as 2 to 3 percent of the vote in past elections.
Just to be clear: This is pure fantasy. Wisconsin has no history of serious (or even not-so-serious) voter fraud. Ask Republican Attorney General JB Van Hollen; after the 2008 presidential election, Van Hollen investigated charges of illegal voting. He found twenty cases, almost all of which involved mistakes rather than actual fraud.
SO WHY ARE WALKER AND PRIEBUS PUSHING THIS BOGUS LINE?
They are afraid they could lose. The talk of voter fraud sets up an argument that if they do lose, the election was surely stolen.
If the result is close, as could well be the case, the promotion of the voter fraud fantasy helps to set up a claim that Republicans were cheated—as opposed to legitimately defeated.
REALLY? THAT CLOSE?
Really. Both sides have put top recount lawyers on notice that their services might be needed. The Democrats have retained Mark Elias, who guided US Senator Al Franken through his 2008–09 recount fight in Minnesota.
Wisconsin law allows for a full recount—at no cost—if the margin in a contested election is less than 0.5 percent. The governor’s race could be that close, as could several of the state Senate contests.
THIS THING MIGHT NOT BE FINISHED TONIGHT?
And if a recount is required, it will—like just about every other aspect of the Wisconsin fight—be brutal.
YIKES! IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW?
1. There is a an independent candidate in the governor’s race: Hari Trivedi. He has spent a good deal of money promoting his candidacy. And some polls have suggested that up to 2 percent for voters might cast ballots for him.
Trivedi’s vote, no matter how small, could be a factor in a close race. It is also possible that a majority of Wisconsinites could vote to recall Scott Walker and still end up with Walker as governor—after the majority split between Barrett and Trivedi.
2. The state could elect a governor of one party and a lieutenant governor from the other. Thus, a Democratic Governor Barrett could serve with a Republican Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch. Or a Republican Governor Walker could serve with a Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mahlon Mitchell.
If such a split occurred, the lieutenant governor would instantly become the leader of the opposition in a deeply divided state.
IS THIS RECALL MOMENT GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY?
Scott Walker’s amen corner may decry “recall madness.”
But right now, Wisconsin is the most mobilized and energized state in the country.
Election officials say turnout could be as high as 65 percent—based on spiked early and absentee voting. That’s essentially presidential-level engagement.
While silly pundits (think George Will) and political insiders moan about election fatigue, you won’t find many actual Wisconsinites complaining. The year-and-a-half-long struggle for worker rights and local democracy—which began in February 2011, and continues to this day—has created a level of engagement that is simply unprecedented.
There is anger and passion in Wisconsin, but almost no apathy. This is as the best of the founders of the American experiment intended when they gave to future citizens the right not just to assemble but to petition for the redress of grievances. It is, as well, what Wisconsin progressives hoped for, almost a century ago, when they added a broad recall power to the state Constitution.
“This,” as the chants of February and March, 2011, explained, “is what democracy looks like.”