Scott Walker's Wisconsin recall victory: 4 lessons

Wisconsin's Republican governor gets to keep his job, delivering a big blow to organized labor. Still, Democrats may have won a big consolation prize

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker strides onstage to make his acceptance speech after winning the gubernatorial recall election: Walker's win demonstrates just how important swing voters are.
(Image credit: Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/CORBIS)

On Tuesday, Wisconsin's union-busting Scott Walker (R) became the first U.S. governor to survive a recall election, beating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), 53 percent to 46 percent — about the same margin as when they faced off in 2010. Walker's victory is a big blow to organized labor and the state's Democratic Party — they pushed the recall effort after Walker controversially gutted the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions — though they may have won a consolation prize: In one of Tuesday's four State Senate recall votes, former Sen. John Lehman (D) won back his seat from Sen. Van Wanggaard (R) by a slim 779 votes — it'll probably require a recount — giving Democrats control of the upper house. Here are four larger lessons from Tuesday's elections and the yearlong recall effort that preceded it:

1. Unions are in big trouble

"There's no sugarcoating what this loss means for organized labor," says Greg Sargent at The Washington Post: Unions pushed this recall to make an example of Walker, and their "failure will have major repercussions for labor groups as they gear up for future fights over bargaining rights in states" around the country. The most demoralizing thing for the unions, say Jim VandeHei, Robin Bravender, and David Catanese at Politico, is that they started this effort with huge amounts of public enthusiasm, but just when it looked like unions "were roaring back to life.... they lost the political and public relations wars — and they never saw it coming." And when unions are in trouble, so are Democrats.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

2. Conservatives can win on bold ideas

"Wisconsin isn't just any other battleground state, and Walker's victory wasn't just a victory for a person but also for a GOP political philosophy of courageous conservatism," says John Dickerson at Slate. Like Wisconsin's other "bold" Republican star, Rep. Paul Ryan (R), Walker pushed big conservative reforms and stuck to his guns when the going got tough. Now, "Walker has faced the full force of organized labor and liberal outrage," and his victory ensures that you'll be hearing a lot more about him going forward.

3. Money talks, loudly

More than $63 million was dumped into this recall race, but Barrett was "outspent 10 to 1 (or worse)," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. It's hard to overcome those odds. Walker alone spent $30 million, a crazy amount in a state of fewer than 6 million people, say Politico. But in the world of super PACs and relaxed donor rules, "this is the new normal." Wisconsin was essentially "a test lab, an incubator for outside groups to test ads, mobilization, micro-targeting, and the dark arts of robocalls and voter suppression" — and in November, every competitive race "will look like Wisconsin — on steroids."

4. Moderates are important

In exit polls, "President Obama managed to win a seven point lead over Mitt Romney in an electorate that was voting for Scott Walker," and, in fact, 1 in 6 Walker voters preferred Obama to Romney, says E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post. "Who were the Walker-Obama voters?" Moderates and independents, mostly, many of whom opposed the idea of recalling a governor over policy disputes instead of official misconduct. Barrett actually won moderates, just not by a big enough margin. The national lesson here is that in a year in which Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for a partisan brawl, "turning out your own supporters is essential. But so is fighting for the pure swing voters."

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.