Governor's race overshadows crucial fall elections in swing-state Wisconsin

Wisconsin could determine control of Congress and may be Mitt Romney’s best chance to win a historically Democratic state this election — but any talk of fall races is on the back-burner as the two parties fight a highly charged battle for control of the governor’s mansion.

Both Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans have been in full-on campaign mode ever since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) pushed through a law ending government workers’ right to collectively bargain. In the year and a half since his controversial push the state has hosted six elections including state Senate recall races and a state Supreme Court race that both saw spending in the tens of millions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Walker will face the voters on June 8, and polls show him with a slight lead over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D). Whatever the result, the trench warfare between Walker and the unions will likely color November’s elections. Romney has fully embraced Walker, calling him a “hero,” and he and Obama have increasingly fought over labor policies.

Romney accused Obama this week of wanting “to do the bidding of these old union CEO bosses,” while Obama has taken an increasingly populist and pro-union tone since Walker pushed the issue into the national spotlight.

There have been many signs of the long shadow the recall election has cast over all other races in the state. Every Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate has made a point to campaign hard for Walker and routinely invokes his name on the stump, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) sent out a Friday fundraiser for get-out-the-vote efforts in Wisconsin, seeking to capitalize over the attention the race has drawn.

Obama won Wisconsin by a 14-point margin in 2008 and Republicans haven’t won the state at the presidential level since 1984, but the GOP has long been competitive there. President George W. Bush came within one percentage point of winning the state in both 2000 and 2004, and Walker led a Republican revolt in the state in 2010 — the GOP won the governor’s mansion, both chambers of the state legislature, a Senate seat and two House seats.

This time around, control of both the White House and Congress could be determined in the state — and both sides predict a tight general election. Besides the presidential race, there is a dogfight for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), and two GOP-controlled House seats are high on Democrats’ target lists.

“I expect both the Senate and presidential races to be competitive regardless of what happens in the recall,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate told The Hill. “That’s in keeping with Wisconsin’s history — we almost always have close races.”

Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks agreed.

“Wisconsin will definitely be in play during the presidential race,” he said. “We have implemented the largest grassroots organization the party has ever had in Wisconsin, and it will remain in full swing after Walker's victory and on into November.”

Besides Walker, two other Wisconsin Republicans are leaving their mark on the GOP — and influencing the direction of the election. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus ran the Wisconsin Republican Party through 2010, has a close relationship with Walker — and a vested interest in the race. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) GOP budget has become a rallying cry for conservatives and liberals alike, and he has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Romney.

Romney hasn’t shown any signs yet of contesting Wisconsin — his initial ad buy is running in four states but not there, and he hasn’t returned to the state since he won the primary there in early April. But two recent polls showed the two in a statistical dead heat, and if Romney hopes to expand the electoral map it seems likely this would be a good place to start.

A big question for the campaigns is how Obama does in the more culturally conservative, fiscally populist areas in the north and west of the state. The areas are traditionally battlegrounds, while he did exceptionally well there in 2008, in 2010 Democrats got crushed in those areas. The labor fight has helped galvanize culturally conservative, pro-gun rights union workers in areas like Green Bay and Wausau, but it is unclear how the recall election’s results will impact their enthusiasm.

A concern for both parties is voter exhaustion. Wisconsin had the second-highest turnout of any state in 2008 and Wisconsinites traditionally vote at high levels, but the highly emotional, hard-fought recall battles may leave some exhausted — and whichever side loses may face some letdown.

While both sides tout the robust campaign organizations they’ve built in the last two years and promise the get-out-the-vote efforts in the fall will be unprecedented, each admitted concern that if they lose the recall election their side may see some drop-off in enthusiasm for the fall elections.

Democrats have more to worry about — while the unions and liberal activists were more gung-ho about recalling Walker, some party strategists were concerned a loss could be demoralizing for their side and hurt them in the fall. Some privately urged against the recall.

“A Walker loss is probably more likely to fire up Republicans rather than dispirit them — there’s such a strong attachment to Scott Walker in the Republican Party here,” said University of Wisconsin Professor Charles Franklin, who conducted one of the polls showing Walker with a lead and Obama tied with Romney. “With a victory for him, I think there would be some dispirited Democrats... A victory would be incredible in terms of firing up Democrats, all this effort will fire them up. I just don’t know what would happen with a loss.”

The Senate race is even more convoluted. Four Republicans are running for the right to challenge liberal favorite Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.): Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), former Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.), businessman Eric Hovde and Wisconsin Assembly leader Mark Fitzgerald (R). Thompson is the best-known and started out as the early favorite but Neumann has some strong Tea Party support and the backing of the deep-pocketed Club for Growth. Hovde, who recently jumped into the race, has already dropped millions of dollars of his own money on the race.

Thompson’s campaign has gotten off to a slow start — he has had less than stellar fundraising numbers and recently had a dismal showing at the state party convention, getting voted off on the second ballot.

Republicans in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. privately predict that Thompson would be the strongest general election candidate because of his crossover appeal, and fret that Neumann’s hard-line views and combative campaign style could hurt him in the general election. Hovde is a wild card in the race, while few think Fitzgerald will have staying power in the crowded field. The race is likely to be a hotly contested one no matter which Republican wins the August primary.

Wisconsin’s two Northwoods House districts are also competitive. Both freshmen Reps. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) are in tossup districts and are top targets for the DCCC. Duffy is in a slightly more Democratic district but observers say he’s run a better race so far than Ribble, who was outraised by his Democratic opponent in the last fundraising quarter.