Wisconsin offers key lessons for both sides

  • Article by: DAN BALZ , Washington Post
  • Updated: June 6, 2012 - 9:14 PM

ANALYSIS: Money, political conviction may be critical this fall.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker provided a template for Republicans looking ahead to the presidential race with his victory in Tuesday's recall election: big money, powerful organization and enormous enthusiasm among his base. Can Mitt Romney match that in November?

Both sides will examine the results for clues as to whether Wisconsin, which hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984 but has been fiercely competitive in two of the past three elections, will again become a true battleground. If it does become as competitive as it was in 2000 and 2004, the electoral map will become far more challenging for President Obama.

In defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker dealt a sizable blow to Wisconsin Democrats, progressives and the ranks of organized labor, who together threw everything they could into the effort to send the governor home before his term was half over. Whether he significantly damaged the president, who kept his distance from the contest, is less clear.

Romney was quick to seize on the results and claim broader implications. In a statement, he said the results "echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin. Gov. Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back -- and prevail -- against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses."

Obama had no comment.

Romney can hope to replicate Walker's model in two areas. The first is money. Walker raised more than $30 million for his recall campaign, with some from large donations that exceeded the normal limits because of the laws governing recall elections. Barrett raised $4 million. Romney won't raise significantly more than Obama. But the presumptive GOP nominee can count on Republican super PACs to give him an overall advantage.

Obama began the campaign more than a year ago amid assumptions that he would easily raise more than his Republican opponent. But Obama advisers worry that they will be heavily outspent by GOP super PACs. Other than the state of the economy, that potential funding disparity is the campaign's biggest concern. Money may not decide the election, but Romney and the Republicans currently appear to have the edge there.

Superior organization

Walker's victory was a party victory. The Republican Governors Association spent more than $9 million in his behalf. The Republican National Committee and the state Republican Party combined for a total effort in mobilizing voters. All that paid dividends in defining Barrett and building an organization that proved superior to what many Democrats considered a fine get-out-the-vote operation of their own that was run by their party and the unions.

Democrats were divided over the wisdom of going ahead with the recall, although given the determination by their rank and file, there was no way to stop it. Obama campaign officials worried that it would take resources and energy away from the presidential race. The Democratic National Committee drew criticism for not backing Barrett more aggressively. Had the outcome been closer, the president would have faced criticism for not campaigning in behalf of Barrett.

DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida said before the election that the recall would be a "dry run" for the Democrats' ground operation for November. What Republicans showed in Wisconsin was their ability to run a superior voter mobilization operation, at least in this one election. Obama officials say they see little evidence that Romney is as well organized as they are in the battleground states. But the Wisconsin effort gives the GOP something to build on.

Walker's victory was also very much a personal one. To Wisconsin Republicans, Walker is a hero, a rock star. Now he may be one nationally as well. Wisconsin Republicans may admire Romney, but the enthusiasm for him doesn't match the affection for Walker. He will need some of that Walker enthusiasm if he hopes to win the state in November.

There is one other important element to the Walker template -- conviction. He took a controversial position in going after labor unions as part of his effort to deal with the state's fiscal deficit. In the face of a huge backlash, he stood behind what he did. That makes Walker the kind of conviction politician that many want in their leaders today. It is what many Republican voters thought was missing in Romney during the primaries.

Obama vs. Romney

But Tuesday's exit polls offered some evidence that Obama may still hold some advantages in Wisconsin. When voters were asked how they would vote in the presidential election, Obama ran ahead of Romney, although his margin was short of the 14 points by which he won the state in 2008. Overall, about 17 percent of Walker voters said they would support Obama in the fall. Well over half were self-described independents and more than half were moderates.

A plurality of Wisconsin voters also judged Obama superior to Romney in his ability to help the middle class.

Walker and the president actually share something in common. Walker's main message was similar to what the president has been using: We've made progress, things are a little better, don't go back to where we were before I came into office.

The recall was described by both sides as the second most important election in the United States this year, just behind the presidential race. It lived up to those expectations, and Walker exceeded expectations with his victory. It was not a referendum on the president. That election is coming soon enough.

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