Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin in the nationwide Republican tsunami of November, 2010. And by that very evening, an array of domain names such as RecallWalker.org had already been reserved by his opponents. They didn’t care to wait, to see if there just might be any legitimate reasons to recall him. They wasted no time at all.
Rather than accepting defeat at the polls and gearing up for the next regularly scheduled election, the Wisconsin Democrats – aided and guided by their national party leaders and union bosses – instead reached for every possible tactic to stymie the reform efforts of Walker and the new Republican majorities in Madison. No tactic was too extreme or peculiar for them.
In an effort to deny the strong GOP majority in the senate a chance to vote on bills, fourteen Democrat senators fled the state, hiding out for weeks in northern Illinois. In further efforts to scare GOP legislators, they introduced recall after recall of state senators, and even Wisconsin’s first-ever gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial recall, as soon as such a special election would be legal (Wisconsin doesn’t allow a recall to be called until the officeholder has held the seat for at least a year, so all these special elections have been staggered). These special elections have cost the state tens of millions of dollars, and the state was already in the hole.
But such budgetary problems have never bothered the modern Democrat; if they did, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. Still, with all the circus displays of the AWOL state senators and the frivolous recalls, it’s been easy to forget what the key issues are in this critical June 5 election, especially for those of us living outside Wisconsin.
Who are they?
Republican Scott Walker was elected Governor in November, 2010, after the office had been held by Democrat Jim Doyle for two terms. The state’s finances were in the red; local governments were in even worse shape, and the state was bleeding jobs as one of the nation’s most unfriendly business climates frustrated even longtime Wisconsin companies into moving or expanding into other states rather than remain in Wisconsin.
Prior to his gubernatorial election, Walker had served eight years as the Milwaukee County Executive (Chicagoans would compare the office to the President of the Cook County Board), where he cleaned up a similar broke and tainted office after a pension scandal by the preceding administration. And before that, Walker served nine years in the state house as a representative from the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa.
Democrat Tom Barrett, the challenger, is in his third major statewide run, having been defeated in a US Senate bid in 1992 and in his last gubernatorial bid in 2010; yes, that makes this recall something of a rematch.
A lawyer who worked as a bank regulator for the FDIC before entering public office, Barrett has held four major public offices: as a state rep for five years, then as a state senator for four, then as a congressman for ten. He has been mayor of Milwaukee since 2004, where despite his claim to be an environmentalist, he turns a blind eye to the way his city’s water treatment plants dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into Lake Michigan every time there’s a major rainstorm.
The two politicians could hardly be more different. Despite having similar biographies as married family men with both legislative and executive experience, they differ on virtually every issue of consequence. Scott Walker is a solid conservative on both economic and social issues, while Tom Barrett is an unreconstructed leftist.
While not running on social issues in this campaign, for example, Scott Walker is known to be a pro-life supporter of traditional values. Tom Barrett, on the other hand, made a special point in a televised debate to remind the audience of his own commitment to abortion-on-demand and the state recognition of “gay marriage.” And Washington watchers will remember Barrett’s history as one of Congress’ most notorious gun grabbers in the 1990s, when he sponsored bills to ban ammunition, as an end-run around the 2nd Amendment. This is no moderate; Barrett is indeed an extremist.
Who Will Win?
As in any election, there are plenty of polls, even though the only one that matters is the real one on election day. There is something pernicious about the polling in this race, however, even though it’s all showing Scott Walker ahead.
Here’s the problem: There are really two aspects to the math used in the typical poll. There’s the percentage of respondents who answer each question, and then there’s the way those responses are weighted by the pollster.
For example, let’s say the pollster aims for 1000 registered voters. Many will be out of the house when he calls, or will refuse to answer… so he has to call 2000 or 3000 on his list of registered voters, in order to reach 1000 usable responses.
Once he has those answers, he can’t publish the raw results. He has to compare that sample with the demographics of the last actual election, and work out a scientific way to weight the answers. The problem with this election is that Wisconsin has never had a special statewide recall election before, so there is no way to predict the demographic breakdown of the actual voting population on June 5. You can’t just assume it will be identical to the last gubernatorial election, or the last primary, or the last presidential election; the voting mix is utterly unpredictable.
Therefore, while there is certainly no doubt that Governor Walker is more popular among the citizenry than his opponent, the election results could easily be quite different, as many of his supporters will assume from the positive polling that their votes aren’t needed.
There will be somewhere between two and three million voters in this election, and the level of turnout will be the deciding factor. The left is praying – to the extent that they do pray, anyway – that the Walker side gets complacent, and one in ten, or even one in five, stay home on election day. If that happens, Tom Barrett will be the next governor of Wisconsin.
Remember the 1st rule of elections: It doesn’t matter who has the most supporters; it matters who has the most supporters show up to vote.
What turned the tide?
Driving through Wisconsin, one is struck by the huge number of Walker yard signs, seemingly at every farm. This count is deceptive, of course, because Barrett is just as strong in the cities. But even so, for a state known for a hundred years as among the nation’s most liberal - having begun the 20th century as the base of Fighting Bob LaFollette and the Progressives - the recent strength of genuine conservatives is a welcome change.
It may have been an aberration in 2010, a part of the national tsunami that turned so many other governors’ mansions and state houses to the GOP in reaction to the disastrous triumvirate of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. But it is an aberration no longer; there is at least a partial realignment in Wisconsin, because of information learned since Walker’s election, particularly connected to the Budget Repair Bill that removed non-salary benefits from the subjects that collective bargaining can negotiate with such local governments as school districts (police and fire contracts were exempt from this change).
These three issues were among the biggest shocks to the voting public, making them among the key reasons for Walker’s levels of support to this day, despite all the accusations hurled at him.
The Master Teacher Program: After years of conservative activists charging that the teachers’ unions had gone too far in extracting unfairly high benefits from the taxpayers, the charge was proven when the previously unknown program known as the Master Teacher was revealed. Some districts – not all, but enough – had long provided a program in which some former teachers (including retirees and people who were now working for other school districts) could return to work at their old school district for just two weeks per year, to receive a full year’s salary every third year… yes, in addition to their pension or new school district’s salary, for just two weeks of work per year.
The WEAC Insurance Scam: While private sector employees have been paying some share of their company-provided health insurance for decades – twenty, thirty, even as much as fifty percent – the teachers had always received their health insurance, managed by the union and funded by the taxpayers, for free, no employee contribution required. And then they screamed if anyone proposed that they chip in a little. The reforms of 2011 shone the light of truth on this program, and it was discovered that the union was overcharging the school districts by millions of dollars, to fund six-figure salaries for the union honchos who manage this corrupt scheme. Since the school districts have been able to shop around for insurance for the first time in memory, they are now saving millions while eliminating any need to talk of layoffs. In short, contrary to the left’s predictions and claims, the reforms have protected teachers’ jobs, not jeopardized them.
The Incestuous Relationship: Conservatives had long complained of the too-close relationship between schoolteachers, their unions, school administration, and their elected school boards. While this issue obviously varied in intensity from district to district, the problem of electing union representatives to school boards “because of their experience in the schools” only became strikingly obvious when their books came under the microscope in 2011. Now that the public has realized that in many districts there had simply been no taxpayer-and-student advocate at all for years, that the schools’ management and employees were all in it for themselves, regardless of the interests of the citizens and their children, this genie won’t go back in the bottle. Some segment of the public has lost its naivety; they will never again be at ease with the same faces rotating between the classroom, the principal’s office, and the school board room.
There have been more such defining discoveries, many more, but these three exemplify the public discoveries that were only unearthed as a result of the battles of 2011. Those who have been thus awakened, at least, will likely be voting Republican for the foreseeable future.
The Unexpected Campaigns
Many assumed that the recall battle, when it finally happened, would be on these issues, and many more. It has not been. While Scott Walker has touted the economic facts, the opposition has been grasping at straws.
Walker’s commercials speak of the success of the Budget Repair Bill… of how the reforms have enabled districts to protect their current employees rather than having to resort to layoffs… of how the state’s successful turnaround has resulted in job growth in Wisconsin at last.
Barrett’s commercials, on the other hand, involve making up all sorts of charges. Barrett’s surrogates attack Walker for the possibility that an aide might have done a bit of campaign work while on the clock for the county, and they charge that Walker might be planning on further union-busting efforts in the private sector (he’s not), or that he’s hoping to curtail deer hunting in Wisconsin (sheer insanity!). They’ve even used false statistics to claim that statewide job growth has suffered since Walker’s arrival; Walker’s side responded with commercials using federal labor department statistics showing the genuine and provable improvement.
There’s an old saying (I first heard it from the late Congressman Henry Hyde, though I’m sure it predates him): If the law is on your side, argue the facts. If the facts are on your side, argue the law. If neither is on your side, just argue!
Well, that’s what Tom Barrett and the Democrats are doing. Neither principles nor statistics support the Democrat position, so they argue as loudly as they can, throwing insupportable charges against the wall to see if anything sticks.
The Barrett campaign, in an effort to tout his executive experience, declared that violent crime had fallen during his tenure as mayor. The Walker campaign retaliated by citing newspaper articles and FBI statistics showing that the Barrett administration had been cooking the numbers, by failing, for example, to count some 1300 cases of domestic battery and other clear assaults as being “violent.” When counted fairly, it turns out, Milwaukee under the gun-grabber mayor has become more violent, not less so. And the revelation has a second benefit: the public now knows not to trust any statistic cited by the Barrett campaign.
The fight has spread proportionately to the lieutenant governor’s race. Incumbent Rebecca Kleefisch is running commercials reminding the public that Barrett’s running-mate, who claims to be the right man to bring jobs back to the state, is actually a union boss who, just a year ago, was threatening Wisconsin businesses with strike actions if they had the nerve to support the 2011 reforms!
As an example of how much voters have learned about the realities of the public sector unions, this sign was spotted in the rural town of Omro, a week before the election: “Teachers retire at 55; you work until you die. Support Scott Walker!”
Oh yes, tempers are flaring. The producers know that they’ve been robbed blind for years by the takers, and they don’t want to return to such days.
Just days to go…
Milwaukee’s king of the afternoon drive – Mark Belling of WISN radio – describes the situation this way. Since there are virtually no undecided voters in this race, there are four groups in the electorate: definite Walker voters and definite Barrett voters, and weak leaning-Walker supporters and weak-leaning Barrett supporters. The strong supporters will vote, for sure…
…but the question of this election is how many of the weak supporters of either side will show up to vote. To the non-policy wonks, the non-political junkies, this election simply may not be as obviously important as a game on TV, a day at a mall, or some other activity. Many of these, the weaker “leaning” supporters, may not show up on election day at all.
The election will hang on which side’s suffers the least drop-off of supporters who don’t bother to vote vs. their supporters who do.
A preponderance of yard signs and bumper stickers will give the wrong impression to some voters, which Walker-positive polling will reinforce. The Barrett campaign will use union-managed get-out-the-vote techniques; will the Walker campaign be able to match or exceed such an effort?
There will likely be many lessons to take from this election after it’s over. But in the meantime, all we can do is watch Governor Walker and the fight to save Wisconsin, and pray that his supporters overcome the temptations of complacency on election day – June 5, 2012 – for the benefit of not only Wisconsin, but of all states that needed a role model to emulate in these desperate times.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. A former Wisconsinite, he served a term as Republican County Chairman of Milwaukee County back when Scott Walker was a promising and impressive young state rep, and he managed a successful congressional primary campaign for Tom Barrett’s safe seat in 1994. Di Leo does not pretend to be impartial; he’s anxiously looking forward to celebrating when Barrett loses his fourth major statewide campaign!
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