Before the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election had even been called Tuesday night by the news networks, conservatives and Republicans were gleefully celebrating Governor Scott Walker’s impending victory. If you were watching Fox News, you were informed that the hastily organized June race in one state is a near-certain predictor of the presidential election results November. Moreover, unions that opposed Walker had not only been defeated in this one specific race; they had been exposed as out of touch with their own members and decisively crushed throughout the nation from today to the End of Times.
Here’s a sampling of what conservative pundits and Republican politicians had to say:
“If I’m Barack Obama I think, ‘Do I need to defend Wisconsin now?’”
—Sean Hannity, Fox News host
“With tonight’s victory, I think this is a state, not only can we win in Wisconsin, but Mitt Romney can also be very competitive, can win Michigan, Pennsylvania.”
—Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
“As Reagan followed Thatcher, Mitt Romney will follow Scott Walker.”
—Hugh Hewitt, radio host
“This shows the irrelevance of the unions.”
—Denny Strigl, former Verizon CEO
“Pack it in, Unions. It’s over.”
Tweet from Brett Doster, Florida senior adviser to Romney for President.
“Perhaps it’s those union leaders, those thugs… who need to be recalled…. Obviously [Obama’s] message has been defeated here in Wisconsin.”
—Sarah Palin, Fox News contributor
“TONIGHT’S RESULTS WILL ECHO BEYOND THE BORDERS OF WISCONSIN”
—Press release headline from Mitt Romney
The National Republican Campaign Committee asserted that the recall election results mean trouble for Democrats in unrelated Wisconsin congressional elections. “By rejecting [Democratic nominee] Tom Barrett [Wisconsin voters] also sent a message that they are ready to stay on a fiscally responsible, pro-jobs track and that means trouble ahead for Madison liberal Tammy Baldwin,” they declared.
There are a few inconvenient facts being ignored by all these chest-beating proclamations. Democrats were at a distinct disadvantage in this particular race. They had only a few weeks between the primary, when Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was selected, and the election, while Walker had months to organize. They were wildly outspent by Republicans, who brought in massive infusions of cash from corporations and wealthy donors. In total, the GOP side spent $45.6 million to $17.9 million on the left. And the exit polls showed that this very same electorate that favored Walker 54-45, favors President Obama over Mitt Romney, 52 to 43. Voters from families with a union member chose Barrett 62–37. (There was no breakout available for just union members themselves, but they tend to be even more Democratic than all voters from union households.)
Before the votes were even cast, sharper minds cautioned against overestimating their national significance. Here’s Slate’s Will Oremus listing the reasons this race is not a test-run for the presidential election:
1) It’s a recall. 2) It’s happening in June. 3) The incumbent is a Republican. 4) Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is running. 5) A significant number of states (49 by my count) will not be participating. 6) Need I go on?
Drawing inferences about a national election on the basis of a state election is almost always tenuous, but it’s particularly so in the case of a gubernatorial recall, where the main issue is not the U.S. economy, health care, or national security, but the character and specific track record of the individual in office.
And, as The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis notes, an uptick in the economy will help all incumbents regardless of party. That means both endangered Republican governors such as Ohio John Kasich and President Obama.
Make no mistake, this is bad news for progressives and Democrats. But it does not prove what conservatives say it does. Rather, it merely shows that the unlimited spending unleashed by the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court has given Republicans a tremendous spending advantage and that does make a difference. Whether or not President Obama and other Democrats can overcome that is an open question.