Unable to avoid the pandemonium surrounding Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his union crackdown in Wisconsin, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney has chosen to make the embattled governor’s fight his own.
Embracing Walker offers major short-term advantages for Romney in Wisconsin, which holds its primary contest Tuesday, as the GOP front-runner looks for the last few wins he needs to lock up the nomination. But it might also risk alienating voters in union-heavy swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania — at just the time when Romney and his campaign hope to turn their attention to the general election.
The presidential race has become almost an afterthought in Wisconsin, where Walker and public-sector unions have been waging an all-out war for more than a year. At issue is Walker’s push to curb the collective bargaining rights of public workers, whose pension and healthcare costs Walker says have spiraled out of control.
On Friday, a state panel set a June 5 election to recall Walker after opponents collected more than 900,000 signatures — almost twice what was needed. Portions of the law Walker heralded were also struck down Friday by a federal court.
“Workers should have the right to form unions, but unions should not be forced upon them,” Romney said Friday in Appleton, Wis. “And unions should not have the power to take money out of their members’ paychecks to buy the support of politicians favored by the union bosses.”
It wasn’t the first time Romney went toe to toe with the powerful unions that are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars to reelect President Obama. Campaigning in Michigan in February, Romney blasted “labor stooges” who he said were shilling for Obama. The former Massachusetts governor also backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) anti-union law, which voters overturned in November.
Romney’s campaign said he stands with Walker and will continue to address the union issue in the final days of the Wisconsin primary, including by visiting a call center where volunteers are working to keep Walker in office.
The union issue gives Romney an opening to attack Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator has also thrown his support behind Walker, but represented a union-heavy state in the Senate. Romney has accused Santorum of siding with liberal Democrats on right-to-work issues — an attack echoed in ads that Romney’s super-PAC has aired in Wisconsin.
If the growing momentum behind Romney triggers the start of the general election and an end to the primary, the focus on Santorum will soon become moot. Over the past week, Romney has locked up the support of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R), former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), three GOP luminaries whose endorsement could signal the end of a drawn-out fight for the Republican nomination.
But if and when Romney becomes the nominee, he has no plans to let up his tough stand on unions.
“He’s going to continue to run on this message in the general election,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “This is what his campaign is about: making difficult decisions in order to preserve America’s promise.”
The union issue is one of many where Romney has taken an aggressively conservative stance in hopes of quelling speculation that he isn’t a true conservative. But he and his aides are instinctively averse to suggestions he might tack back to the center in the general election.
“That leads into the whole 'Romney waffling, Romney flip-flopping' narrative his opponents want to stick on him,” said GOP pollster Chris Perkins.
The farther he moves to the right, the more difficult it will be to embrace more centrist positions that play better among the swing voters he will need to defeat Obama in November. And Democrats are laying in wait to dub Romney an opportunist who let the GOP’s right flank get the best of him.
“He has, for the last eight months, pandered to the Tea Party, pandered to the right, to people like Scott Walker and Gov. Kasich in Ohio, and gotten himself to the point where he’s so extreme on some of these issues that he’s not going to be able to pivot back,” said one Democratic strategist.
It isn’t entirely clear how the union issue will play politically, but a USA Today/Gallup poll in February showed that 61 percent of Americans opposed a law in their state similar to the one Walker championed in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, states with large numbers of union voters — such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — also happen to be swing states that are pivotal to winning the White House.
Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1984, but the results have often been close in recent years. The race likely holds special meaning for Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native.
And what happens at the top of the ticket could affect the state’s open-seat Senate race, where Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) will face the winner of a GOP primary pitting former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R-Wis.) against three more conservative candidates.
Republican strategist Dan Hazelwood said diehard union supporters have already made up their minds to support Obama, so Romney risks little by backing Walker and his union crackdown.
“It doesn’t matter if your opponent’s base hates you,” said Hazelwood. “To the extent that the fight is Romney versus the union bosses, he’s in great shape.”