In May 1994, Ron Lewis won a special election in a rural Kentucky district that hadn't elected a member of his Republican Party in more than a century. In January 2010, Massachusetts voters handed Scott Brown a Senate seat they hadn't held since Henry Cabot Lodge lost re-election to John F. Kennedy. Both special elections presaged Republican sweeps in the following Novembers.
After Tuesday's recall vote in Wisconsin, in which Gov. Scott Walker dispatched Democrat Tom Barrett, Democrats and Republicans are left wondering whether they've just witnessed a similar canary in the coal mine -- or whether Walker's win is a coincidence borne of eighteen months of nonstop campaigning and a narrowly-divided electorate.
A canvass of smart operatives in both parties revealed a surprising pessimism all around. Several Democrats said Walker's margin of victory in a state President Obama won by a wide margin in 2008 had them concerned for his prospects later this year. Several Republicans said they didn't want to take any lessons from a race in which their side outspent Democrats by a massive margin.
It's difficult to draw national conclusions from a special election. The electorate is far from representative of general election voter turnout, the margin by which Walker outspend Barrett won't be repeated over the next several months, and the issues in a gubernatorial race focused on collective bargaining are hardly the same as those that will drive the presidential contest.
And yet several Democratic strategists said today that, in their darkest moments, they view the results in Wisconsin as troubling foreshadows for Obama's re-election bid. After all, labor unions -- a key pillar of the Democratic electorate -- turned out at higher percentages than they did in previous years, and Walker still won. African Americans and younger voters, the two most reliable segments of the Democratic base, made up smaller parts of the electorate than they did in the 2008 presidential contest; with President Obama's campaign boasting of their turnout prowess, that raises the specter that the best turnout operation can't match a pricier advertising campaign.
Democrats are concerned that the race -- during which Walker and his Republican allies outspent Barrett and his friends by a five-to-one margin -- offers just a hint at the Citizens United-inspired onslaught to come in November. "Democrats had the best turnout and field operation in Wisconsin that we could ever hope for, but that can't win elections when Republicans are massacring us on the airwaves," said one worried Democratic strategist. "This should be a wakeup call to Democratic groups and donors who think we can ignore mass communications and focus only on field and turnout."
"Citizens United has fundamentally changed politics and campaigns. Scott Walker and his soft money Death Star spent over $40 million," said John Lapp, a Democratic operative involved in several House campaigns this year. "If they care about the future of this country and Democratic politics, it's time for progressives of means to wake up and join the fight."
But Republicans are no more optimistic than their Democratic counterparts are pessimistic. The fact that Wisconsin has effectively gone through three elections in the last 18 months -- a general election in 2010, a set of state Senate recalls last Summer and Tuesday's elections, which accounted for about $100 million in combined television advertising -- means few voters who cast ballots today are undecided. The electorate that voted on Tuesday, two strategists said, will be difficult if not impossible to replicate in November.
What Republicans said they could learn from Tuesday's results is that coordination works. Several outside groups -- the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity and other super PACs -- went up with television ads when Walker went off the air in March. The RGA spent its time tearing down Democrat Barrett, while more local organizations spent their dollars bolstering Walker's reforms.
Wednesday's news will be nothing but good for Republicans. Walker's bigger-than-expected victory will allow his party to claim they have the momentum heading into November's general election. But smart strategists on Walker's own side don't actually believe Walker's win suggests they have the wind at their backs in November.
The biggest irony is there are more than a few Democrats who disagree, and who believe Tuesday's results suggest the same bad omens Democrats received in Kentucky in 1994, and in Massachusetts in 2010.
The guys who want Walker's win to be a canary believe it's a coincidence. The guys who want Barrett's loss to be a special election-driven coincidence harbor secret fears they've just witnessed a dying bird in what was supposed to be a closer contest.