Mitt Romney and the Republican Party now have their model for the 2012 election. In a race that pitted each party’s political base against the other, Gov. Scott Walker won the Wisconsin recall Tuesday because he did the better job of unifying his party and mobilizing his supporters.
Walker’s defeat of Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, is by no means a reason for President Obama to panic. Preliminary exit polls showed him holding a comfortable edge over Romney in an important battleground state, and, regardless, the race’s unique circumstances -- including a huge GOP money advantage -- make drawing sweeping conclusions for November difficult.
But the Republican victory suggests it’s possible for the party, following Walker’s example, to galvanize against Democrats and win even in the face of a determined effort by the opposition.
Walker’s support has been well-rounded throughout the campaign, coming from ends of the GOP spectrum often at odds with one another. Establishment figures such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have all stumped with the governor and praised his policies. Tea party activists also stood by Walker – one Republican Senate candidate, Eric Hovde, even ran an ad on the governor’s behalf.
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“I’ve never seen a U.S. Senate candidate run an ad for another candidate,” said Scott Becher, a GOP public relations consultant. “I can’t think of another time when you have other candidates coming together on one message. I think it’s historic.”
Romney can count on similar support from the GOP establishment. It’s less clear if he can expect excitement among the conservative rank-and-file who view his past moderate positions with suspicion: A CNN/ORC poll released last week found only 47 percent of Romney supporters “strongly” support the unofficial GOP nominee, far lower than the 62 percent who strongly back the president.
But the recall has revealed an enthusiasm among Republican activists dedicated to knocking out Barrett, energy Romney – who notably didn’t campaign in Wisconsin ahead of the recall -- could harness for the general election. He, like Walker, must mobilize his own base to win an election marked by a sharp ideological contrast that has left relatively few voters up for grabs in the political middle.
“I think clearly there’s been not just a unity of Republicans, there’s been intensity of Republicans, an excitement of Republicans, which has been one of more important factors of this race,” said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin-based GOP strategist. “They were ready to walk on coals to make sure (Walker) was successful.”
Their intensity spilled over in several key areas where Walker equaled or improved his 2010 performance, according to county returns. In Brown County, which Obama won in 2008 and Walker carried with 56 percent of the vote in the midterm wave, the governor was nearing 60 percent support, with over 90 percent of precincts reporting. In GOP-heavy Waukesha County, Walker hadn’t ceded any ground since 2008, and even in Democratic-dominated Dane County, Walker was running ahead of his 2010 pace. Labor did an impressive job turning out its core supporters for Barrett, but was still outgunned by the GOP base.
(RELATED: Walker Defeats Barrett in Wisconsin Recall)
Romney clearly reveled in the victory, declaring Walker’s success is proof voters demand a cost-cutting approach to government. “Tonight’s results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin,” he said in a statement. “Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back – and prevail – against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.
The GOP’s unity differed considerably from the splintered Democratic operation, which, while united in its larger desire to unseat Walker, disagreed about when and how to do so.
Democrats riled by Walker’s controversial 2011 measure to curb collective bargaining for government workers had been thirsting for a recall of the governor for over a year. Voters recalled two Republican state senators from office in 2011 and liberal activists moved swiftly toward ousting Walker himself shortly thereafter. They submitted 1 million signatures on petitions to recall the governor in January, roughly double what they need to force an election less than two years into Walker’s first term.
Organized labor, which isn’t a big fan of Barrett’s policies as mayor, lined up behind Kathleen Falk, a liberal candidate who entered the race for the Democratic nomination weeks before the Milwaukee mayor. She fired up her base by promising to veto any budget that didn’t end Walker’s anti-collective bargaining measure while Barrett, tacking to the middle, did not.
A labor-dominated coalition spent over $4 million trying to Falk win a primary she ultimately lost to Barrett by double digits. None of the money was spent sullying the mayor’s record, but it was a substantial sum dedicated to a pre-general election intraparty fight. Barrett, who from day one ran to end Wisconsin’s “civil war,” and has some residual name ID form his 2010 campaign against Walker always appeared to be the more electable election candidate.