MILWAUKEE—On February 11, Wisconsin’s newly minted Republican governor, Scott Walker, unveiled his budget-repair bill, a controversial proposal to curb collective bargaining for public employees, boost their pension contributions, and require a plebiscite to increase their pay above the rate of inflation. “We must take immediate action to ensure fiscal stability in our state,” Walker said that day. The following week, thousands of public employees and political activists assembled at the Wisconsin Capitol to protest, and it became clear that the governor’s path to fiscal stability would be paved with a historic level of political instability.
After the ensuing discord, nine state senators—six Republicans and three Democrats—face recall elections this summer. Ostensibly, these are referenda on the Republican agenda in Wisconsin. Democrats and liberal groups are infuriated by a plan to roll back what they see as essential protections for workers. Republicans are flummoxed by Democrats’ refusal to behave like the minority and concede that they won’t get their way in the Legislature.
But instead of a reflection on the parochial travails of Wisconsin, the recall elections have turned into referenda on the nationwide agendas of both parties. A review of demographic data, campaign ads, and advocacy groups’ efforts suggests that what was supposed to be a local affair has become a testing ground for, and possibly a harbinger of, the 2012 election. Democrats in several key districts are telling their constituents that the GOP would cut back on Medicare, per Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan; Republicans are bird-dogging the theme that Democrats, enamored of big government, simply aren’t serious about responsible accounting.
In the same way that the Spanish Civil War offered a preview of the tactics and tools of World War II, Wisconsin—the birthplace of both the Republican Party and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union—has emerged as a laboratory for broader Republican and Democratic arguments.
In some ways, Wisconsin is a neat microcosm for the country writ large. Although it has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in the past six cycles, it remains very purple, with geographic divisions, a polarized electorate, and a tendency to swing back and forth. Republicans hold a 19-14 advantage in the state Senate.
President Obama won 56 percent of Wisconsin’s voters in 2008, but in 2010, the Badger State swung hard in the other direction. Voters unseated 18-year Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold and elected Walker in an open race. Republicans also picked up two U.S. House seats. “You had kind of a perfect storm of a terrible economic downturn [and] a backlash that energized conservatives and unnerved independents,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. “And third was disenchantment among the Democrats and other voters [who supported] Obama in 2008.”
It wasn’t just the outcome that mirrored the rest of the nation. Democrats’ problems in Wisconsin reflected bigger trends afoot in 2010. Obama had carried 54 percent of the state’s white vote in 2008, including 52 percent of white voters without a college education, according to the 2008 National Election Pool exit poll by Edison/Mitofsky. But in 2010, Feingold won only 48 percent of the white vote, attracting just 40 percent of white voters without a college degree. That affliction was emblematic of what happened to national Democrats in the midterms.
Although the state’s recall elections (which begin on July 12 and last until August 16) are unique and far from perfect barometers, the demographic data suggest opportunities for Democrats to recapture support among key groups they lost in 2010—making each party’s modes of attack worthy of closer consideration.
DEFINING THE ISSUES
The GOP-controlled Legislature passed Walker’s controversial measure over the protests of teachers and other public employees. Democratic state senators also put up a fight, at one point decamping for Illinois to deny Republicans a quorum. Eventually, Senate Republicans overcame the opposition with a procedural tactic, stripping the bill of its fiscal components to pass it with a simple majority vote; on March 11, Walker signed it.
Then the blowback began. Wisconsin is one of just 19 states that allow voters to remove state officials from office before the end of their term. Only two state lawmakers have been removed in this way, but after Walker signed the bill, opponents targeted all eight eligible GOP state senators. They managed to trigger elections in six districts. Meanwhile, a counter-counteroffensive launched an effort to recall the eight eligible Democrats of 14 who left for Illinois during the showdown; three now face recall elections.
One of the most vulnerable Republicans is Randy Hopper of the state’s 18th Senate District, which includes Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. He won a first term in 2008 over Democrat Jessica King by just 163 votes out of more than 83,000 cast. Obama won the district in 2008, but it tilted heavily Republican in 2010; Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson won with more than 57 percent of the vote.
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