On Tuesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker held onto his job with a typical Republican campaign built on trickery, wildly dishonest messaging and a massive budget courtesy of a handful of ideologically like-minded sugar daddies from out-of-state (according to Mother Jones, about two-thirds of Walker’s donations came from outside the Badger State, compared with just around a quarter of his opponent’s).
In the aftermath of the vote, conservatives, proving typically magnanimous in victory, spun the results like a top. They claimed the outcome spelled doom for Obama this fall, marked the death of the labor movement and was a pure reflection of voters’ love for Scott Walker’s economy-crushing austerity policies.
“This is what democracy looks like,” Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch crowed after hanging on to her job. “Public sector unions are over,” rejoiced libertarian blogger Radley Balko on Twitter. The Breitbart kids, furthering a standard-issue conservative lie about unions, happily reported that, “Walker won 36% of Wisconsin’s union households, which isn’t surprising, considering how workers reacted when emancipated from forced dues.” (By law, nobody can be forced to pay union dues – workers in union shops can only be compelled to pay the direct costs of representing them.)
1. Wisconsinites Just Didn’t Like the Idea of Recalling a Sitting Governor
An honest reading of the published exit poll leads to an important conclusion about Walker’s victory that has little to do with unions, Walker’s policies, the economy or any of the other factors that have pundits’ tongues wagging.
Fully 70 percent of those voters polled believed that recall elections are either never appropriate (10 percent) or are only appropriate in the case of official misconduct (60 percent).
The governor won 72 percent of this group. And it’s worth noting that a third of those voters who said “official misconduct” is a good reason to recall a governor voted to oust Walker, who has seen six of his staffers charged with 15 felonies in the “John Doe” probe.
While Walker himself has not yet been charged, reports suggest that the investigation is circling closer to him.
2. Wealthy Wisconsinites Voted Their Self-Interest
Also belying the spin that this was a referendum on public sector unions is the fact that the wealthiest fifth of the population – the people who have benefitted directly from Scott Walker’s tax cuts (passed during a supposed “fiscal crisis”) and probably worry too much about the social safety net he has ripped apart – made all the difference in the race.
Scott Walker and Tom Barrett were tied among the 80 percent of Wisconsin voters who make less than $100,000 (Walker got 50.2% of the vote, but the poll has a 4-point margin of error). Among the 20 percent who make $100 grand or more, Walker trounced Barrett, 63-37.
3. About Those Union Households
Did unions fail to turn out the vote? No, a third of the electorate belonged to a “union household” – the biggest share in any gubernatorial or presidential race since 2004.
But much has been made about the fact that Walker won 38 percent among that group. It’s a sad reality, but a little too much is being made of it, when you dig into the numbers. As the Washington Post noted, union members voted overwhelmingly for Barrett – by a 71-29 margin. But members of “union households” who don’t belong to a union only supported Barret by a 51-48 margin – not enough to make a difference.
That means that people who have a family member who belongs to a union didn’t feel their loved ones were under attack. Which brings us to…
4. How Could it Be a Referendum on Union Rights When Nobody Ran on Union Rights?
A slim majority of voters approved of Walker stripping the rights of public sector unions. But a final nail in the coffin for the narrative that Walker won on that issue is the simple fact that Barrett chose not to campaign on it. In fact, Barrett touted the fact that he wasn’t labor’s first choice (unions had backed Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, whom Barrett defeated in a primary) and bragged on the campaign trail about how he had been a tough negotiator with public employee unions as mayor of Milwaukee. He presented himself as the centrist who can “make tough choices” – basically parroting the case that Walker made in 2010.
That may have been a huge tactical error – hindsight is 50/50 – but it is the case, and suggesting that this election was all about Walker’s union-busting is simply divorced from the reality of the campaign.
5. This Is What Plutocracy Looks Like
It’s not accurate to say that money made all the difference in this race. The two candidates, facing off for the second time in two years, were both well-known by the electorate and the overwhelming majority of voters had made up their minds before the battle commenced.
But it’s also a mistake to dismiss the Walker camp’s ability to outspend their opponents by a 10 to 1 margin. According to the National Journal, the result was that “Walker and his Republican allies have outspent Democrat Tom Barrett and supportive groups more than 3-1 on TV ad buys during the three months leading up to the June 5 recall election.” This is likely the new normal in the age ofCitizens United.
6. Very Little Changed From 2010, Except the Number of Voters
Pundits have to blather about what a big contest means, but the reality is that there wasn’t much difference between this contest and the last one between the two men in 2010.
7. A Wisconsin Race That Tells Us Virtually Nothing About November
Immediately after the vote, CNN’s John King wondered whether Wisconsin, a pretty solidly “blue” state, should be moved from the “lean Obama” category to “up for grabs.” Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said Walker’s win “helps to put Wisconsin in play.”
8. Don’t Forget 2011
None of this is to suggest that Tuesday wasn’t a painful defeat for the forces of progress in Wisconsin. It was. But much of the coverage has focused on Tuesday’s races in isolation, and that’s a mistake.
The picture looks a lot rosier when one considers the entire 16 months Scott Walker has been in office. Since Walker’s draconian union-busting measure passed, Democrats have collected the scalps of four sitting state senators, flipping the upper chamber to their control.
Three Democrats defended themselves against Republican recall efforts in 2011, while defeating two of their opponents. Then, back in March, another Republican targeted for recall, Pam Galloway, abruptly resigned, leaving the senate evenly split between the two parties. At the time, she said she was stepping down to deal with “family issues,” but it was widely believed that she didn’t have the desire to face a tough recall fight.
Then, on Tuesday, Democrat John Lehman appears to have picked up a senate seat in Racine County, swinging the chamber to Democratic control (there may be a recount, but he has a fairly solid lead of around 800 votes).