In Wisconsin Recall Fight, Focus Shifts from Unions to Jobs

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stands on the North Lawn of the White House before making remarks to the news media, February 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. Walker, a Republican, will probably face a recall election this year, an effort spearheaded in part by Democrats and pro-union supporters in his state.

When Democrats began the push to oust Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last year, his controversial law curbing the collective-bargaining rights of most public employees headlined their list of grievances. But while June 5’s landmark recall election began as a fight over the fate of unions, it has since become a battle over unemployment, past promises and the state’s economic future. As voters head to the polls Tuesday to anoint a Democratic challenger, the once-pitched debate over collective bargaining has fallen silent. 

Democrats’ indictments of Walker are as withering as ever. But party messengers have re-calibrated their arguments to focus on bread-and-butter topics capable of swaying the narrow band of independents who remain undecided ahead of next month’s election. “Collective-bargaining rights are not the main issue at this point,” says one Democratic operative in Wisconsin.

(PHOTOS: Union Showdown in Wisconsin)

The messaging shift reflects the realities of a calcified electorate. The saturation of media coverage since union protesters thronged the capitol in Madison has produced a remarkably low number of ambivalent voters–fewer than 5% of respondents in recent polls. “It’s been so discussed and litigated,” says the operative. “People have already made up their minds on it.”

For Democrats, that meant changing messages was a necessary tactical move. But it was nonetheless a striking shift in the wake of the charged rhetoric and moral outrage of last winter, which accused Walker of gutting the state’s middle class to enrich his corporate overlords and cloaking his plan to bust unions in the language of fiscal reform. Now Democrats, whose case to recall a sitting governor for the third time in U.S. history was rooted in notions of executive overreach, have settled on a different argument as the election looms. “The irony is that collective bargaining, which was the instigation in all this, is fading into the background,” says Charles Franklin, a pollster at Marquette University.

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It probably didn’t help that Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor likely to become Walker’s opponent on Tuesday, has had a checkered relationship with some of the state’s powerful unions. Barrett, who held a 17-point lead over Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in a recent poll, supported the idea that public employees should foot a greater share of the bill for their benefits, and rankled one Milwaukee-based union so much that it claimed (inaccurately, as Politifact shows) that he sought concessions beyond those that Walker later prescribed. Such skirmishes may have been what prompted a labor-backed outside group to plunk down more than $4 million to advertise on behalf of Falk, although her financial backers are preparing to transform their organizations into get-out-the-vote operations for Barrett should he win.

Barrett, who lost the 2010 gubernatorial race to Walker by five percentage points amid a national Tea Party wave, has taken pains during the primary to dispel concerns about his commitment to bargaining rights. He has said he supports the restoration of negotiating rights that were curbed by Republicans. But he has not made the issue a central focus of his campaign, preferring instead to focus on Walker’s record on jobs, education, women’s health and crime.

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Like the state party and Democratic outside groups, Barrett has zeroed in on Walker’s campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs during his first term. Recently released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that Wisconsin lost more jobs last year than any other state, and Barrett has assailed the governor for this “broken promise.” These statistics have supplanted testimonials about the plight of public workers as the centerpiece of Democratic messaging. In a speech last month, Peter Barca, the party’s leader in the state assembly, cited the state’s job losses to argue that “by any meaningful metric, Governor Walker has the worst jobs record of any governor in the nation.” A recent strategy memo from the chair of the state’s Democratic Party spent more time casting Walker as a subsidiary of Koch Industries than connecting him to Act 10.

Walker has been conspicuously quiet on the subject as well. Like most embattled incumbents, including President Obama, he has sought to frame the race as a choice between competing ideologies, rather than a referendum on his tenure. Walker and his conservative defenders have blistered Barrett, touted studies showing the state’s increasingly hospitable climate for businesses, and pointed to an unemployment rate that is below the national average. While the governor has painted restrictions on collective bargaining as essential to his effort to close the state’s budget gap, he has downplayed his work curtailing union powers, the very efforts that made him an icon of the conservative movement.

Political observers in Wisconsin say it’s natural that both sides have tweaked their messaging to strike a chord with the rare wavering voter. But that doesn’t mean they don’t notice the dissonance between the recall’s impetus and its end game. “I don’t think you would’ve ever gotten a recall on the jobs issue,” says Marquette University’s Franklin, “but it looks like it’ll be front and center now.”

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