Wisconsin bellwether

Wisconsin voters, torn by more than a year of poisonous polarization, decided this week it was time to recall the toxic politics of division and move on. Gov. Scott Walker’s resounding, bipartisan victory not only affirmed his right to remain in office, but more voters supported him in 2012 than had in 2010. The 7-point victory told the Democrats and the unions who pushed the recall all they needed to know — it wasn’t even close, game over, let the healing begin.

In exit polling, voters split nearly evenly against each other on substance — disagreeing in inverse percentages about Walker’s performance on job creation and his handling of the collective bargaining issue. But on the question of whether recall elections are appropriate, a whopping 67 percent stated only in the case of official misconduct. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel concluded in an endorsement of Walker, “a disagreement over a single policy issue is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor.”

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Republicans all over the country said courage was on the ballot in Wisconsin, that Walker had bravely governed as he had campaigned and his defeat Tuesday would have discouraged other bold fiscal conservatives from running for office and holding to their principles. It isn’t entirely true. Walker had not campaigned promising to attack collective bargaining rights; while Wisconsin’s progressives indeed saw deficit reduction coming, they did not expect union-busting. Yet by the time the recall election took place, Walker had rehabilitated himself and the state of Wisconsin — he was able to boast of nearly 30,000 new jobs and the elimination of a more than 
$3 billion deficit. 

After collecting 1 million signatures for the recall last year — more than twice the number required — Democrats and their labor allies began to attack not the loss of collective bargaining rights, but everything else. Sometimes it was a question of Walker’s character, the way he has divided the state, the takeover by super-PACs, or an investigation into how Walker’s aides were raising political money when he was Milwaukee County executive. After starting a recall effort based on collective bargaining rights, Democrats nominated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett instead of former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, the candidate labor favored. Barrett bragged throughout his short campaign that he was not the candidate of the union bosses, even as he tried to keep labor supporters fired up for his cause. By the final days it was clear the recall effort was about anything but the high threshold of serious misconduct a legitimate recall would require to remove Walker from the job Wisconsinites elected him to do less than two years ago. 

Not only did many Walker voters make clear in exit polls they did not approve of his handling of the collective bargaining issue, they chose President Obama over his challenger, Mitt Romney, by 54 percent to 42. On the question of who would do a better job fixing the economy, voters also chose Obama 45-36, and he beat Romney 48-35 on the question of who would better protect the middle class. Obama will take comfort — after 10 terrible political days — in these numbers. But he left Wisconsin Democrats to fight the losing recall battle on their own, and faces a steep challenge in trying to convince labor and the rest of the Badger State Democratic Party to get fired up and ready to go.

Meanwhile, Walker is now a conservative hero whether he likes it or not, and after the national GOP invested in his victory, they will keep their campaign apparatus in place for Romney. Obama’s Wisconsin campaign just got much more expensive, but Democrats there aren’t feeling too flush.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.