This past week, Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, trounced his Democratic challenger, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, in a heavily publicized recall election. Only two years after being elected governor over Barrett, Walker faced recall due to public rage over his legislation that stripped public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. Walker’s margin of victory over Barrett in the recall election was even larger than his in the 2010 election. In 2010, Walker ran on a platform of strict fiscal austerity and drastic measures to help the state economy, including tackling the main difficulty with reforming public employee pensions and benefits – namely, unions. He governed exactly as he promised, and yet the Democrats (or rather, the union bosses) thought they had to at least try to unseat Walker, even with only two years left in his term. Despite the local nature of the recall, it still has important national ramifications. The lessons learned from the Wisconsin recall election are pertinent to both presidential candidates and provide a preview for what to expect in the coming months.
By choosing to keep Scott Walker, Wisconsin voters, acting as a microcosm for the nation at large, showed that they support politicians who keep their word, even if doing so means enacting controversial legislation. In this regard, President Obama’s record is mixed; he has kept some of his campaign promises, such as ending the War in Iraq, and he has broken some, such as his promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Running as the challenger to the incumbent, Romney needs to start explicitly clarifying what his promises are; he needs to separate them from the campaign rhetoric and purely ideological stances. For example, Romney often speaks about balancing the federal budget, but he should reiterate a firm statement of when he plans to do so, with the guarantee that any unbalanced budget passed by Congress after such a time will be vetoed. Wisconsin showed that people want real and major reforms to address the challenges facing society. Washington politicians keep kicking the entitlement spending can down the road, and while Romney has said he supports reforms such as a personal account model to replace Social Security, that simply is not enough. Romney should promise to sign such a law and be an active leader for such legislation rather than being on the sidelines.
The Wisconsin recall also showed that money matters in elections, and campaign fundraising will be extremely important to both Obama and Romney. Walker outspent Barrett by a staggering margin, thanks in part to out-of-state conservative supporters. Romney seems poised to receive the lion’s share of corporate and Wall Street money (much of which will likely be channeled through Super PACs), while Obama will be aided by Hollywood, the green lobby, and his newest allies – gay rights advocates. Much of the money from both candidates will likely be funneled into the three most important battleground states: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Interestingly, because of the result of the Walker recall, Wisconsin may become a new battleground. Wisconsin has not gone red since 1984, but with the reaffirmation of a staunchly conservative governor and the support he will surely give Romney, Republicans are hoping to force Obama to compete for the state. The president constantly bemoans the impact of special interest and corporate money in elections after Citizens United, but even if Obama personally opposes Super PACs, they can and will continue to help both him and his opponent in the general election due to the requirement of noncooperation. While it is impossible to know how the Wisconsin race would have been different had Walker and Barrett been on equal financial footing, the fact remains that campaign fundraising is just one piece of the political puzzle. Wisconsin may just be one state, but its citizens sent a powerful message to the rest of the nation and one that the president and his challenger should take with the greatest gravity.