Wisconsin voters rejected use of recall to oust governor.
Within minutes of projecting Gov. Scott Walker the winner in Tuesday’s Wisconsin recall election, CNN pundits began earnestly overstating the national importance of the vote.
It was an understandable impulse, given the high profile of the attempted recall over the past 17 months. Energized Wisconsin Democrats and an outraged organized labor threw everything they could muster at the Republican governor, who earned their ire last year by moving to curtail collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
But a closer look at the factors that propelled Walker tells us that caution is in order when projecting national implications from his decisive win.
Let’s start with money. Out-of state cash poured into Wisconsin as if the Packers had offered more souvenir stock, and Walker outspent his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 7-1. Mitt Romney’s campaign won’t have that kind of advantage in November, nor will other GOP contenders in hotly contested races.
Walker also faced a middling opponent. Barrett, who wasn’t the first choice of organized labor in the primary, was the recycled loser from the 2010 gubernatorial race. His second campaign gained so little momentum that President Obama stayed away from Wisconsin, and the president’s single contribution to the Barrett effort was a 17-word tweet.
Clearly, Tuesday’s vote was a serious setback for organized labor in a state that in 1959 became the first in the nation to give unions broad bargaining power. Since Walker’s changes took effect — including limiting the ability of unions to collect dues through payroll deductions — 25 percent to 40 percent of state employee union members have stopped paying dues, a representative told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Labor didn’t help its cause by wasting $4 million on its preferred primary candidate, former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, who was soundly defeated by Barrett in the primary.
Before discounting the impact labor will have in November, however, it’s worth noting that unions won a major victory in Ohio just seven months ago, when voters resoundingly rejected similar collective-bargaining changes backed by GOP Gov. John Kasich. Under Wisconsin law, Democrats and labor couldn’t follow Ohio’s lead and use a referendum to reject the bargaining legislation, so instead they went after Walker.
The recall attempt itself also skewed Tuesday’s results in Walker’s favor. Exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters agree with this editorial board (“Wrongheaded recall in Wisconsin,” June 3) that recall elections should be reserved for cases of significant malfeasance or criminal misconduct by elected officials. They should be the direct-democracy equivalent of impeachment, not a minority party’s response to a hard-fought policy dispute.
Those same polls show that Wisconsin voters would have chosen Obama over Romney, 51 percent to 45 percent. And other recall efforts appear to have given Democrats narrow control of the state’s Senate. Those results, too, ought to tamp down GOP victory swells; they say instead that Wisconsin remains a fractured, difficult-to-govern state — not unlike its neighbor to the west.
To his credit, Walker seemed keenly aware of that reality as he thanked supporters Tuesday night. He spoke not as a triumphal candidate but as a governor with a lot of work to do.
He seemed to acknowledge that he moved too abruptly last year to curtail public-employee union power. Now, he said, he wants to bring the state’s two parties together — over brats, burgers and Wisconsin beer — to search for bipartisan consensus on a way forward.
That aim, announced with a dash of humility and respect for his political opponents, is the right one for election-weary Wisconsin. It’s also what the nation needs — though it may not be what those who thrive on partisan conflict want to hear.
Some of them were touting Walker as a future national Republican candidate after Tuesday’s win. Let him prove first that he can cease being the nation’s most polarizing governor and work effectively with both parties for the good of his state. Only then will he warrant the acclaim that was heaped on his victory this week.
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