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Warnings from Wisconsin

Wisconsin is flashing a big red (or better blue) warning light to Republicans everywhere — uncompromising pursuit of an extreme agenda will hurt, badly.

Two weeks ago, I argued here that uncompromising extremism has become the watchword of the GOP, a conclusion underlined by Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) vow Friday never to compromise on his anti-labor agenda. Last week, I reviewed data demonstrating that voters support the right of public employees to bargain with their employers.

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This week, it has become clear that Walker and his party have paid a substantial political price for their extremism and recalcitrance — a price Walker imitators are also destined to pay. 

In November, Walker won a healthy six-point victory. Today, he would lose a rematch and posts net negative approval and favorability ratings. 

A PPP poll earlier in the conflict found that instead of leading his opponent by six points, as he had in November, Walker’s support had collapsed, leaving him seven points behind. The most recent Wisconsin poll, conducted by University of Wisconsin Professor Ken Goldstein for a right-wing think tank, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), revealed just how profoundly Walker has alienated his constituents. Voters were 10 points more unfavorable than favorable toward Walker and disapproved of his performance in office by a similar margin. The intensity of the anti-Walker sentiment is striking — 45 percent strongly disapprove of his performance, while just 29 percent strongly approve.

Republicans might find it shocking, but Walker is now less highly regarded than his adversaries. “Public employee unions” and “teachers unions” both enjoy positive images, with favorables a vast 16 points higher than Walker’s. Institutional players are usually less popular than individuals; yet “Democrats in the State Legislature” merit favorables seven points higher than Walker’s. 

The ill will generated by the governor poisons his party as well. In 2010, Republicans took over both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. Today, legislative Democrats are meaningfully more popular than their Republican counterparts — with voters net-favorable toward Democrats by eight points, while splitting evenly in their evaluations of legislative Republicans.

While President Obama has surely helped himself, it’s likely that in Wisconsin, Walker’s travails have helped rehabilitate the president’s image as well. On Election Day, exit polls showed Wisconsin voters disapproving of Obama’s performance by seven points; today they approve of the president’s performance by 11 points, a shift greater than the national movement.

Antipathy to Walker is based on both his uncompromising attitude and his substantive positions. Though Walker vowed never to compromise, by two to one, voters want him to do just that. Moreover, Wisconsinites reject the premise of his effort — almost every poll conducted in Wisconsin shows voters support collective bargaining for public employees.

But Walker’s war on labor is not the only source of voters’ anger at him. They reject his budget priorities as well — priorities nearly identical to those adopted by Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country. By 67 percent to 31 percent, people oppose his cuts to local schools; by two to one they oppose laying off state workers; and by three to one they oppose his cuts to healthcare for low-income adults.

How would Wisconsin voters deal with a budget crisis created in large measure by Walker’s tax cuts for the wealthiest people in Wisconsin? By reversing Walker’s course and raising taxes on those making over $150,000 a year (72 percent favor, 27 percent oppose).

Republicans elsewhere court the same explosive hostility by clinging to uncompromising extremism and by forcing cuts to popular programs while refusing to consider revenue measures voters support and which would reduce the need for devastating cuts to education, job creation and public safety.

Scott Walker has single-handedly turned Wisconsin blue again. Republicans might do the same to the rest of the country.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.