Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s flight to last week’s National Governor’s Association meeting in Salt Lake City got canceled and he ended up sleeping on the floor of the Denver airport.
That may turn out to be the highlight of Walker’s summer.
Last Tuesday, “real” Democrats won all six primary elections to choose challengers to six Republican state senators who had backed Walker’s agenda of attacking unions, undermining the authority of local governments and school boards, selling off state assets to friendly corporations and cutting more than $1.5 billion in funding for schools and local services.
The Republicans were so scared of the recall challenges to the Walker-allied senators that they ran “fake” Democrats—Republican activists posing as Democrats—in the primaries. The GOP ginned up last-minute stealth campaigns to try to beat the real Democrats. But the strategy failed miserably. The real Democrats won their races with as much as 70 percent of the vote. And now the party has a muscular slate of primary winners (three state representatives, a former county executive, a former deputy mayor and a popular teacher) heading into the August 9 recall races with the Republican senators.
That was a bad Tuesday for the governor.
But this this Tuesday was even worse for Walker.
The first clear test of the recall season, a race between Democratic Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay and Republican challenger Dave VanderLeest, produced a big win for the Democrats.
Hansen is one of the Democratic legislators who traveled to Illinois in February in order to deny the governor and his allies the quorum they needed to rush passage of their anti-labor initiatives. VanderLeest is a Walker enthusiast, was not the GOP’s first choice to take on Hansen. (The party’s preferred contender failed to gather enough signatures to secure a place on the ballot. As such, Republicans were stuck with a candidate who; according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has a record that includes “a couple of disorderly conduct convictions, $25,000 in unpaid property taxes and allegations of domestic abuse.”)
But, despite the Republican’s liabilities, the partisan divide is so intense in Wisconsin that the Hansen-VanderLeest provided a classic “Which Side Are You On?” choice.
Hansen was backed by the Wisconsin unions and farm, environmental and community groups that have been battling Walker since February.
VanderLeest was backed by Walker’s allies—a dwindling group in a new University of Wisconsin “Badger Poll” is right in suggesting that 59 percent of Wisconsinites now disapprove of the governor’s approach.
The result? Hansen won 66 percent to VanderLeest’s 34 percent. In the high-turnout election. Hansen, who ran an an unapologetic defender of labor rights, beat his challenger by more than 16,000 votes.
Thus, the first of this summer’s nine recall votes has been decided, overwhelmingly, for the Democrats.
Two other votes on Tuesday set up contests between Republican challengers and Democratic incumbents: Senator Bob Wirch of Kenosha and Senator Jim Holperin of Conover.
In Wirch’s southeastern Wisconsin district, Republican primary voters selected Jonathan Steitz, a wealthy Chicago lawyer, over a former sheriff and current county board member, Fred Ekornaas. While Ekornaas had more to offere as a general election candidate, he could not appeal to the anti-tax, anti-labor extremists who dominated the low-turnout GOP primary. Steitz’s victory pits a corporate lawyer with a history of backing free-trade deals in a union town that has been hard hit by factory closings and job cuts. Needless to say, Democratic strategists were smiling.
In Holperin’s northern Wisconsin district, Republicans primary voters rejected a relatively mainstream conservative, Lincoln County Board chairman Robert Lussow, and chose Tea Party favorite Kim Simac, who declares: “If you teach evolution, then why not creationism? Why not put a cross in a school? Why not talk about Easter in our schools?”
Simac’s win saddled the GOP with a controversial contender in the August 16 runoff race with Holperin, who has generally been thought of as the most vulnerable incumbent. Simac’s candidacy has suffered the fate of a “family values” candidate with a personal story that challenges the political narrative.
A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article was headlined: “GOP Recall Candidate Kim Simac Says Her ‘Spouse Swap’ Just ‘One of Those Quirky American Stories.’ ” The article explained that “Kim Simac, a Republican candidate in one of the recall elections expected this summer, said Monday the fact that her ex-husband married her current husband’s ex-wife is ‘one of those quirky American stories.’ ”
That’s another headache for Walker, who is clearly starting to feel the heat of a Wisconsin summer gone awry.
After he got out of the Denver airport and finally made it to Salt Lake City for the Governor’s Association gathering, Walker gave interviews in which he talked about how he had made “mistakes” in selling his agenda—as part of a “charm offensive” aimed at making the governor seem humble and perhaps even reasonable.
“I don’t think we built enough of a political case,” Walker told the Reuters news service, “so we let…the national organizations come in and define the debate while we were busy just getting the job done.”
Walker was trying to foster a fantasy.
He made no “mistakes.” He implemented an agenda, dictated by right-wing donors such as the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and supported from the start by the network of conservative “think tanks” and organizations developed to push the pro-corporate agenda in the states. He and his aides engaged in a coordinated effort to “build” the “political case” for that agenda, through a media blitz in February—and that blitz was augmented by television and radio ads paid for by national right-wing groups.
Those were the “national groups” that came in and tried to “define the debate.”
The only “mistake” Walker made was in believing that Wisconsinites were foolish enough to fall for the fantasies about needy corporations and big bad unions that he was peddling.
Wisconsinites saw through the spin.
That’s why hundreds of thousands of them turned out to protest against the governor and his agenda in February and March. That’s why they are working to recall his allies in July and August. And that’s why they reelected Democrat Dave Hansen on Tuesday.