In Wisconsin’s Recall, a Tale of Two Parties

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Gov. Scott Walker speaks to supporters as he campaigns along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at the Waukesha Victory Center on May 24, 2012 in Waukesha, Wis.

As many as two-thirds of Wisconsin voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to recall Governor Scott Walker. It’s the marquee undercard in a presidential-election year, laden with all the money and meaning that accompanies the distinction. While Democrats believe the race is tightening, polls suggest Walker is still favored to survive. If he wins, it will be partly because the Republican Party committed itself to his survival while Democrats were conflicted about how to engineer his demise.

No top national Republican — not Mitt Romney, not John Boehner, not Mitch McConnell — stitches together the party’s grassroots and top brass like Walker does. And he tallies approval ratings over 90% among Wisconsin Republicans. In the latest Marquette Law School poll, which showed Walker supporters outnumbering recallers by seven points, 92% of Republicans reported they were “absolutely certain” to vote, compared with 77% of Democrats. The GOP’s normally fractious factions — Tea Partyers, fiscal hawks and social conservatives — have coalesced behind the governor as though he were Ronald Reagan’s heir.

To defend his post, Walker’s campaign raised more than $30 million, about three times what it took him to win the governorship in the first place. That’s not counting the cash funneled to his defense via outside groups. “Courage is on the ballot in Wisconsin,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters on a conference call last week. A Wisconsin native, Priebus made Walker’s preservation a national priority.

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To be sure, Democrats poured enormous amounts of time, energy and funds into orchestrating Walker’s ouster. Wisconsin’s progressive activists and unions, in concert with a constellation of outside groups — United Wisconsin, We Are Wisconsin, Greater Wisconsin and so on — have tirelessly fought to recall Walker. The Democratic Governors Association committed more than $3.2 million, more than it spent in the state in either 2006 or 2010 (when Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor pitted against Walker, lost to the governor by five points). The DNC has kicked in fundraising support, and the Wisconsin arm of Obama for America has pitched in with get-out-the-vote efforts in a race that will hinge on turnout.

But in two respects, these considerable efforts have been hamstrung by scattershot messaging. The first is the case for booting Walker. It’s easy to understand why the Democrats have pivoted away from collective bargaining, which was the impetus for the recall in the first place: after 15 months of protests and waves of heated elections, there are few people left to persuade on that score. But the Democrats’ closing arguments have been all over the place, pinballing from lackluster job growth to allegations of duplicity to the ongoing “John Doe” corruption probe. Labor leaders and recall proponents say the buffet of grievances is by design. But contrasted against Walker’s arguments — lower property taxes, a budget surplus, green shoots of economic growth — it makes for a muddle.

Democrats have also been fuzzy about the race’s larger implications. The Republican frame is clear: failure to recall Walker would boost Mitt Romney’s chances to capture the Badger State in November’s presidential race. Top Democratic brass have been downplaying the stakes of the recall, even as they tout internal polls that suggest it’s a dead heat. Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, argued last week that the outcome of the Walker recall will have no impact on the presidential race: “It has nothing to do with President Obama at the top of the ticket, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican ticket.”

(PHOTOS: Showdown in Wisconsin)

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz made the same point. But then, with just days to go, she upped the ante by decreeing the June 5 tussle a “test run” for November and dispatching Bill Clinton to campaign with Barrett. Not only is Clinton an unpredictable surrogate — a condition reinforced by his off-message praise last week for Mitt Romney’s business record — but also, the former President’s visit to Milwaukee was a nagging reminder that the current one has ventured nowhere near the high-profile race.

Why were national Democrats tentative? For one thing, they didn’t pick the fight. Walker tried to dismiss the massive protests in Madison last winter as AstroTurfed mayhem, but the truth is, they were an expression of rage from progressive activists and local unions. The same activists spearheaded Walker’s recall effort by collecting nearly 1 million certified signatures. United Wisconsin, the group primarily responsible for that campaign, had 30,000 volunteers and a paid staff of five. “This has always been primarily a citizens’ movement,” Erik Kirkstein, the group’s political director, told me. To Democratic operatives, the recall was a risk: a costly investment that could blow up in the party’s faces and boomerang on Barack Obama. The war was initiated at the grassroots level, fashioned in the same sort of underdog mold as Occupy Wall Street. “People power vs. money power” is a widespread refrain.

This is a tough war to win on the best of terms, but Walker had the benefit of a five-month window in which to raise unlimited money. Republicans did everything they could on his behalf. “Our money isn’t limitless,” Rich Abelson, an executive director of AFSCME in Milwaukee, told me last month, “and it seems like theirs is.” AFSCME is one of several unions that combined to put more than $4 million behind Kathleen Falk, Barrett’s opponent in the Democratic primary. When we spoke, Abelson took issue with my argument that this money was squandered. Several groups felt strongly that Falk was the better champion for the policies they cared about, he explained. Which is fair. But the upshot was that Democrats extended Walker’s window to run unopposed and wound up with a candidate many in the movement are tepid about.

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On an ideological level, the Republicans’ clarity of purpose and the Democrats’ ambivalence extends to collective-bargaining issues and union support. Polls show that more than 65% of voters in Wisconsin are in favor of making public workers pay more toward their pensions and health care costs, says Charles Franklin, a pollster at Marquette Law School. (Walker’s bill reduced the take-home pay of those workers by an average of 9%.) At a moment rife with municipal- and state-level budget crises, unions have a fraught relationship with Democrats. “[Walker] was willing to kill unions, and that’s how he started to rise,” says Lee Holloway, a veteran politician and former member of the county board of supervisors who has sparred with both Walker and local unions. “Is there a place for unions? Yes,” Holloway says. “Without unions, this country would go to hell. The question is whether unions have remained progressive.” Even union members themselves seem conflicted: polls suggest nearly 40% of them will support Walker.

If the relationship between Democrats and labor is complicated, the one between Walker and his party is anything but. A union-busting, business-courting, take-no-prisoners son of a preacher, Walker positioned himself as a politician willing to fight for conservatism, and conservatives responded in kind. Nor did it hurt that they regarded a recall win as a way to move the needle in November. “If Walker wins [Tuesday], which we are very confident he will, Obama is going to have a much tougher road in Wisconsin this fall,” Priebus said. Whether or not that prediction bears out, a Walker victory would be a setback for a party that has suffered many of them lately.

MORE: With Money and Momentum, Scott Walker Gains Ground in Wisconsin Recall Campaign