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Success Breeds Apathy

Firing up the base is a lot easier when you’re out of power; just take a look at Wisconsin.

On the brink: David Prosser(Darren Hauck/AP)

photo of Reid Wilson
April 6, 2011

Beware electoral success: It breeds lethargy in your political base and fires up the other side. It’s a lesson both parties had the chance to learn in recent years, though neither really did.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser might be the latest victim of the lesson ignored; the 13-year incumbent trails his rival by a few hundred votes after what is likely to end up the closest judicial contest in Badger State history.

The race turned into a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his assault on collective bargaining rights, a law that will likely wind up in the state’s high court. Though justices are officially nonpartisan, Prosser had support from Republican organizations, while opponent JoAnne Kloppenburg had backing from labor groups and Democrats. With all but three precincts reporting as of Wednesday afternoon, Kloppenburg held a tiny lead of 224 votes out of nearly 1.5 million cast, with thousands of absentee ballots left to count.


Regardless of whether Kloppenburg holds on, her feat is historic. Only one other state Supreme Court incumbent has lost reelection since 1967. And the fact that she was able to stage such a dramatic comeback after finishing 30 points behind Prosser in the February primary should worry Republicans as they look to 2012.

Wisconsin, after all, should be competitive for Republicans next year. In 2010, Republicans took two Democratic-held House seats, replaced an outgoing Democratic governor with Walker and won back both houses in the Legislature, and even beat Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, the liberal icon, with a conservative in the tea party mold. The Wisconsin GOP chairman, Reince Priebus, won election as head of the Republican National Committee in part on the strength of his electoral results.

Of all the Rust Belt states, Wisconsin’s demographics look most favorable for the GOP. The 2008 electorate was 89 percent white and 49 percent male, both higher than the national average. And 54 percent of those casting ballots were white voters without college degrees.

Those are exactly the voters among whom President Obama’s approval ratings have cratered, and Democrats have suffered for it. While Obama won 52 percent of such voters in 2008, Feingold lost those voters 58-40 percent in 2010. Obama won whites by 9 points; Feingold lost them by 11. Obama tied Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among voters over 65; Feingold lost those voters by 8.

Republicans were able to win in 2010 in part on the strength of their base, which was excited to turn out against Obama’s policies. Democrats, on the other hand, showed less enthusiasm after nearly two years of Obama’s first term. Exit polls demonstrated the enthusiasm gap: Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a 6-point margin in 2008; by 2010, the Democratic advantage was a single point.

And yet the only motivation the Democratic base needed was a Republican in the executive branch. Walker’s successful legislative effort to pare back collective bargaining rights for state employee unions had the unintended consequence of firing up an otherwise-disspirited Democratic base. After extended union protests and sit-ins in the state Capitol, legislators passed Walker’s initiative in the worst way possible—by way of parliamentary rule.

That has lit a flame unlike anything Democrats could do for themselves. Union activists have already turned in what they say are enough petitions to recall a Republican state senator, and they’ve got another month to collect signatures to recall others. A Democratic operative in Wisconsin says a second set of signatures sufficient to recall a Republican senator will be filed Thursday.

Republican-backed groups say they, too, have collected enough signatures to recall a Democrat from office.

Beyond the ramifications for legislators, though, the Democratic base is excited again and just in time for Obama’s 2012 re-election kickoff.

In other swing states, new Republican governors are confronting newly animated Democratic bases. After Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed collective bargaining legislation similar to Wisconsin’s into law, labor leaders, who had already been leading Wisconsin-like protests, organized a repeal campaign—gathering signatures to force the issue onto the ballot. Kasich’s approval ratings have dropped precipitously. So, too, have those of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, as he has pursued legislation that unions see as a threat.

We’ve seen this movie before. After the 2008 election, the Democratic base was uninspired, grumbling over lack of action on issues ranging from a ban on gays in the military to closing Guantanamo Bay.

Union activists who spent millions on Obama’s cause in 2008 expected action on a long list of priorities, but in the end, the Democratic Congress could not move many of them. Democratic allies and donors had grown so frustrated that Jim Messina, who will manage Obama’s campaign in 2012, had to embark on a listening tour during his first several months on the job.

Meanwhile, Obama and congressional Democrats fired up the GOP base better than Republicans ever could. Republicans portrayed as a regional party mired in the South and Appalachia stormed back and elected a senator in Democratic Massachusetts. Republicans went on to win back 63 House seats and moved closer to Senate control.

Allies of either party spend huge amounts of time and energy in campaigns. It’s natural they expect something for their efforts. But while those outside interests and party loyalists wait, the other side is able to regroup and pursue power once again.

Winning elections, it turns out, is the easy part, while keeping control becomes far more difficult. That’s a lesson Obama, Walker, and Prosser have all learned the hard way.

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