Wisconsin recall vote a slap in face for labor, but maybe not Obama
Don't read too much into Wisconsin's results, political observers say and exit polls indicate. For some voters, the beliefs that a recall was an unjustified and unnecessary expense were reasons enough to vote for Walker.
Barrett's final indignity: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yGYfFQjybs
There may be no more appropriate metaphor for the impact of Wisconsin's combustible recall election for governor than what happened to Democratic challenger Tom Barrett moments after he publicly conceded defeat to Republican incumbent Scott Walker.
The Milwaukee mayor delivered the news to supporters at a downtown hotel Tuesday night, stepped off the stage and was slapped in the face by a woman distraught by his loss.
Slap in the face. Kick in the pants. Cold shower. Insert gloomy cliché of choice here.
The results were not a good omen for organized labor, the moving force behind the recall, and were only modestly better for Wisconsin Democrats, who recaptured control of the state Senate after a Democrat rallied to narrowly defeat a recalled Republican senator. However, even that development could prove of little consequence because the Legislature is in recess.
Regardless, political and labor experts cautioned that Walker's convincing victory in an election that turned on his anti-union policies may say more about voter sentiment in Wisconsin than it does the nation as a whole.
"Public-sector unions are licking their wounds, but I'm not sure how that all connects to the national story," said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "We'll still be a swing state."
As has become a pattern in this contentious presidential election season, Republicans and Democrats moved swiftly to spin the narrative about Wisconsin.
To Mitt Romney, the all-but-certain Republican challenger to President Obama, Walker's victory was nothing short of the leading edge of a groundswell that will "echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin," as well as proof that "citizens and taxpayers can fight back — and prevail — against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses."
Yet exit polls suggest the lesson to be learned from Wisconsin is an old one: All politics is local — even with an influx of tens of millions of outside dollars from special interests favoring Walker and, to a lesser extent, from unions backing Barrett.
Even as voters sided with Walker at the polls, the survey showed Obama still would be the choice of 51 percent of them in November, compared with 44 percent for Romney. Among those who backed Walker's retention, 18 percent said they also wanted to retain Obama.
Moreover, Obama received higher marks than Romney for his ability to help the middle class and improve the economy.
The White House moved quickly to distance itself from the outcome of the governor's race, after receiving criticism from Barrett's supporters that Obama could have done much more to help.
"I certainly wouldn't read much into (Tuesday's) result beyond its effect on who's occupying the governor's seat in Wisconsin," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "Even among the electorate that voted in Wisconsin, voters substantially approved of the president's positions when it comes to who they felt had the best vision for protecting and securing the middle class."
Charles Lipson, a University of Chicago political scientist, said the impact of the Wisconsin vote may have less effect on presidential politics than at the state and local level, where public officials may be encouraged to take a more aggressive stance on collective bargaining with unions.
"The vast American public is pretty pragmatic, but (they) are seeing a train wreck" when it comes to pensions and other public-employee benefits, he said.
But Joseph Slater, a labor-law expert at the University of Toledo, said voters may be more resistant to the kind of change Lipson was referring to than Wisconsin suggests. Slater noted his state of Ohio, where Republicans who control state government also pushed through tough curbs last year on public-employee unions. Ohio voters overturned the GOP changes and restored union rights in a statewide referendum.
The difference, as Slater explained it, is that Wisconsin law doesn't allow for narrow-issue referendums, forcing unions to go for the nuclear option and try to oust Walker instead. "You can dislike the union bill and still like Scott Walker for other reasons," Slater said.
Indeed, exit polling showed narrow support for Walker's collective-bargaining curbs but overwhelming opposition to the recall concept itself. Among those surveyed, 60 percent said recalls were appropriate only in cases where a public official had been accused of official misconduct, while an additional 10 percent said they never were appropriate.
To Burden, the recall results are hardly proof of a permanent tack to the right in Wisconsin. Obama won the state four years ago by 14 points, yet voters handed the reins of state government to Republicans in 2010.
"People call (Wisconsin) a purple state, but I think it's really schizophrenic," he said.