Obama frets after ‘terrifying’ recall vote

President Obama will need to double down on his efforts to keep Wisconsin safely in his column after Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) resounding victory in Tuesday’s recall election.

Every Democratic presidential candidate since Walter Mondale in 1984 has won Wisconsin, but the Obama campaign “can’t view Wisconsin as being in the bank for them,” said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “They’re definitely going to have to put more effort here than they were initially planning.”


Political observers say Obama remains the odds-on favorite to win Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, a sentiment reflected in exit polls showing the president leading Mitt Romney by a healthy margin.

But they say Team Obama should be shaken by the recall results, which highlighted a strong GOP ground game — including the influx of corporate and special-interest money — headed into the November election.

“Republicans here are quite energized at the moment,” Burden said. “They’ve built an operation and they’re advantaged in the state right now. I’m sure the Romney campaign would want to build on that.”

The result energized Republicans across the country — even in the liberal bastion of San Francisco. Obama, visiting the City by the Bay for a fundraiser on Wednesday, was greeted by signs reading, “As goes WI goes the USA” and “The People 1, Unions 0,” according to a pool report.

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The Center for Public Integrity said in a report on Wednesday that Walker outspent his opponent nearly 8 to 1, and Democrats immediately sent out a string of emails soliciting donations for November.

In an email to supporters, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called Tuesday’s outcome — and, more specifically, the super-PAC money spent on Walker — a “terrifying experiment.”

Messina said the money “swung the election.”

“This kind of corporate and special-interest spending is exactly what we could be up against this fall,” he said before asking supporters to donate $3 or more to the president’s reelection campaign.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, agreed with that sentiment, saying Democrats learned a similar lesson in 2010, when they lost a slew of seats to Republicans.

“In 2010, we did not lose the House to House Republicans,” Israel told The Hill. “We lost it to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. In 2012, we did not lose the Wisconsin recall to Gov. Walker, we lost it to an 8-to-1 spending differential, most from out of the state.

“This is a wake-up call,” he said.

While Washington Democrats focused on money, some experts on Wisconsin said Obama must take care in a state where the politics might be shifting.

Charles Franklin, a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University, said Obama, who has been boosted in the state by an unemployment rate lower than the national average, has “reason to worry.”

Wisconsin is “more a battleground state than a toss-up state, but I think it can become a very competitive race rather quickly,” added Franklin, whose Marquette pre-recall poll came close to predicting Tuesday’s outcome. “He doesn’t have such a large cushion to keep the race in the lean-[Democrat] category. It could easily move into the toss-up category.”

Republican National Committee (RNC) officials seized upon Tuesday’s results, claiming they offered a preview of what was to come in November.

A Wednesday memo written by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus boasted that GOP volunteers made over 4 million voter contacts, “more than the GOP did in the entire 2008 campaign and substantially more than Democrats and their union allies.”

“In the process, more than 3,400 Wisconsin volunteers have signed up to help the party,” Priebus said.

The RNC chairman called the recall an “absolute disaster” for Obama.

But Team Obama maintained on Wednesday that the president “remains in a strong position” in Wisconsin, where the campaign has 12 field offices across the state. 

In a memo sent to “interested parties” on Wednesday, Trip Wellde, the Wisconsin state director of Obama for America, touted exit polling data from Tuesday night indicating that Obama beat Romney 52-43.

“While the results of the governor’s race were not what we had hoped for, we were still able to overcome great challenges to ensure the voices of middle-class families were heard,” Wellde said. “We are coming out of this effort with a stronger Democratic organization and more engaged supporters and volunteers.”

Jen Psaki, who served as deputy communications director to Obama at the White House, said the campaign “isn’t taking anything for granted.”

“The campaign has invested in resources and staff and they will continue to,” Psaki said, adding that the recall has energized people on both sides.

Likewise, one union official said the ground game was “robust” and will remain so for the fall elections.

“It’s an unfair assessment to say our ground game has been eaten into by Walker or anybody else. In Wisconsin, the ground game was at a presidential level or even higher,” said the union official.

A union consultant agreed with the assessment that labor’s ground game wasn’t affected by Walker. In fact, the consultant said that while Citizens United has helped flood the airwaves with television advertising, it has also allowed labor’s political operation to contact non-union members.

“Our ground game will be better and simpler than in the past. We can knock on every door because of the change in rules,” said the consultant.

Burden predicted that the state would be seeing a lot of Obama in the weeks to come.

The Obama campaign needs to “make sure they have Wisconsin in their corner before they campaign in some shakier states,” he said.

— Kevin Bogardus contributed to this report.