Walker pulls ahead in Wisconsin

Rasmussen produced the first major poll of likely Wisconsin voters since Tuesday’s recall primary, and found stubbornly incumbent governor Scott Walker five points ahead of freshly nominated challenger Tom Barrett, 50 to 45 percent.  Only three percent of respondents were undecided, or failed to respond at all, while another two percent preferred a different candidate.  Poll numbers can change, and a five percent lead is just a hair outside the 4.5 percent margin of error, but the election is only a few weeks away.

This follows Walker’s remarkable support in the primary, where he ran without serious competition, but still accumulated more votes than his top two prospective Democrat opponents combined.  This was the strongest showing a Wisconsin governor has posted in such a “safe??? primary in decades.  He did have a nominal opponent, and there were many rumors of cross-party hijinks in the open primaries, so this might have driven higher turnout from Walker supporters who didn’t want any nasty surprises.

Still, the impression of strong support for Walker is clear, and it’s all the more amazing because Walker didn’t really have much of a “get out the vote??? effort running for the primary.  He’s got plenty of money for the recall, and so do his opponents – the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel sees both sides putting at least $42 million into this race so far, which is already almost $5 million more than was spent on the actual 2010 election – but pumping up primary turnout just wasn’t a priority for Walker’s team.  Their GOTV strategy is focused on the actual recall election, scheduled for June 5.

In fact, an Associated Press report describes Walker as “surprised and encouraged by the high number of Republicans who voted for him.???  The accumulated turnout for the Democrat primary was also very impressive, so there’s plenty of energy on both sides??? at least among the people who show up to vote in primary elections.  It’s harder to guess what the remainder of the general electorate might do in June.

Well over 2 million votes were cast in the 2010 gubernatorial election, which also pitted Walker against Barrett.  That means only a little over half of the potential Wisconsin electorate has been heard from in the primaries.  The Walker camp has made some noise about the fact that 900,000 people signed the recall petitions, but only 665,000 of them showed up last Tuesday to vote for one of the Democrat candidates.  Signing a petition is less trouble than voting in a primary, or the general election.  Maybe those missing petition signatories have grown tired of recall madness, and won’t bother to vote on June 5??? or maybe they didn’t really care about the selection of Walker’s opponent, but they’ll still show up to vote against him.

Two large and conflicting dynamics come into play when primary season transitions to the general election.  On the one hand, the incumbent suddenly has a single target to focus his efforts against; on the other, internecine feuds are set aside, and the challenging party coalesces around their chosen candidate.  Barrett, widely seen as the more electable candidate, won his current term as mayor of Milwaukee with a commanding 70 percent of the vote.  He scored a decisive victory over the public unions’ chosen candidate, Kathleen Falk.  The unions might not be happy about that, but presumably they hate Walker enough to put lingering primary resentments aside.

The Elections Blog at produced an extensive “recall primary stock report??? that offers this assessment of the anti-Walker forces:

Insiders say it all adds up to egg on the faces of union leaders, who were harshly critical of Barrett in the early going and then tried their best to intimidate him from getting into the race. Now, observers see former Falk backers like AFSCME and WEAC doing their best to make nice with Barrett and show they’ll be part of the final effort to get Walker. But insiders say Tuesday’s results help illustrate the limits of union power in Dem primaries. They still have the members and the resources to help drive turnout. But they can’t simply anoint the Dem Party nominee, insiders say.

Some Dems say the results allowed the party to re-establish itself as the Dem Party and not the union’s party, which will help in the general election. Republicans, meanwhile, do a victory dance and rub in the failure of organized labor to deliver a win for Falk. The question some now have is how hard the labor groups will work to elect Barrett, who they’ve openly feuded with at times over the past several years. To some, it’s a case of grin and bear it. They may not exactly love Barrett, they say, but the unions hate Walker. That alone will motivate them to get to the polls June 5. Insiders say the best they can hope for now is governor who isn’t quite a friend, but also isn’t the enemy. 

Since collective bargaining is off the table as an issue, the Republicans are moving to paint Barrett as an empty suit on fiscal policy.  Two Republican legislators just sent Barrett a letter asking him to lay out his plans for the state, and specifically inquiring as to how he would have cleaned up the $3.6 billion deficit left by the previous Democrat governor.  He had no answer, instead dispatching a campaign spokesman to decry the letter as a “political stunt.???  Much will depend on whether Wisconsin’s general election voters think it was a stunt, or a fair question.