Bill Whalen

Why Wisconsin Matters

Six Republican state senators faced a recall vote in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

The ostensible purpose of the democratic exercise: enabling Democrats to gain control of the state’s legislative upper chamber. In order for that to occur, three Republicans had to lose (the GOP holding a 19-14 advantage heading into Tuesday’s vote).

The unofficial (and unignorable) purpose: if a Republican governor – in this case, Wisconsin’s first-termer Scott Walker – decides to pick a fight with Big Labor, as Walker did earlier this year in signing a bill stripping state workers of their collective bargaining rights, then said governor and his allies can expect labor’s wrath.

So how did the final results play out?

Pretty much as expected.

Four of the six Republican senators kept their jobs (handicappers had the GOP losing the two races, so no surprise there). The putsch failed.

And next Tuesday, Wisconsinites get to relive the off-year fun, with two Democratic state senators also face recall votes – Republicans expecting to gain back a seat.

One of the races the Democrats took on Tuesday night – the 18th Senate District – was a replay of a 2008 contest between the two same participants, in which the Republican prevailed by only 160 votes. Not exactly a paradigm shift.

In the other Democratic pick-up – the 32nd SD – the winning challenger, State Jennifer Shilling, ran against the “political civil war” in Madison. It wasn’t an up-or-down on unions vs. the governor.

Meanwhile, the organized left failed to knock off Republican State Sen. Alberta Darling in the night’s pivotal contest – the 8th SD, aka the “crown jewel” of the recalls.

The early winner in all of this: Gov. Walker, who may face a recall of his own this November (under Wisconsin state law, a governor has to serve an entire year before being eligible for a recall vote – Walker’s been raising money like crazy, just in case).

The referendum was on his ideas and tactics. A majority of his candidates survived. If he has a good night next week, maybe his recall fizzles.

And the earlier loser: someone not on the ballot, President Obama.

Here’s why.

The temptation is to look at the Wisconsin vote as a preview of the 2012 election. Both national parties invested heavily in the final outcome, with TV ads, automated “robo” calls and direct mail — all the bells and whistles of a presidential contest.

Out-of-state money poured into Wisconsin at a rate almost seven times that of last year’s regularly scheduled legislative races. So Washington was watching — and trying to tilt the playing field.

Why the all the interest? Because Wisconsin is the rare “reliably blue” state that could go “red” in 2012. Ronald Reagan put it in the GOP column 1980 and 1984. Since then, Wisconsin has gone Democratic without fail.

Obama carried Wisconsin easily in 2008 (56.3%-42.4%). However, George W. Bush lost it by a mere 11,400 votes (0.4%) in 2004. Should Obama continue to stumble and the Republicans mount a strong ticket – one that perhaps includes native son Paul Ryan – then the Badger State looks more and more like an Upper Midwest battleground.

As the numbers show, the Obama buzz of three years ago wasn’t present in a majority of Tuesday night’s races.

District Incumbent 2008 Election 2011 Recall
2 Robert Cowles Obama 52.4% Won, 60%
8 Alberta Darling Obama 51.4% Won, 54%
10 Sheila Harsdorf Obama 50.1% Won, 58%
14 Luther Olsen Obama 51.8% Won, 52%
18 Randy Hopper Obama 51.3% Lost, 49%
32 Dan Kapanke Obama 60.8% Lost, 44%

What Wisconsin does offer the nation is a lesson in hyper-partisanship to the nth degree. There have been 20 recorded state legislative recall elections held in the U.S. over the past century. By this time next week, Wisconsin will have held nine such elections in the space of a month.

How interesting, then, that for all the sound and fury, not much will have changed by this time next week.

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