The Wisconsin recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker is not going quite like the unions and the Democratic Party expected. Back in 2011, many pundits thought that the governor had overreached when he took on public employee unions, restricting — though not eliminating — collective bargaining rights. But he did so because he inherited a state in dire financial shape with a deficit of $3.6 billion and public employee pensions and benefits that threatened to bankrupt the state.
When a Republican-controlled legislature tried to pass legislation to rein in the abuses, Democratic representatives literally fled the state to make a vote impossible. As a result of some clever parliamentary footwork that separated fiscal items in the bill so that a quorum would not be required to pass the legislation, Walker managed to get the bill passed. The unions sued, unsuccessfully, and the bill became law, incurring the wrath of Wisconsin’s powerful unions — public and private sector. They launched a successful recall petition drive and, for awhile, it looked like Walker might pay for his temerity with his job.
The latest polls in the state show Walker in the lead against his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by 5-8 points. What’s more, Walker has raised vastly more funds than Barrett, some $25 million to Barrett’s $831,000 (though unions and Democratic groups will spend much more on his behalf). But the real problem for Barrett is that Walker’s medicine, though unpleasant for many union members, has helped bring the state’s economy back to a more healthy position.
Even in a heavily union state like Wisconsin, union membership is tiny compared to the total labor force. And when it comes to public employees, most taxpayers realize that they are actually footing the bill for salaries and benefits, which more often than not exceed their own.
When many workers have no health insurance, they may feel chagrined at having to fork over more taxes to pay for Cadillac policies for union members whose own healthcare contributions are much smaller. When most employees get two weeks paid vacation if they’re lucky, they may resent paying full time salaries to teachers who work only nine months a year and spend only five hours a day in the classroom with weeklong holidays, professional development and snow days off.
It’s still possible for the Democrats and unions to pull off a victory if they are more successful at voter turnout than the Republicans. Unions are more than willing to bend the rules when it comes to spending union dues to get out non-union voters. The state can expect a huge influx of out-of-state union staff to work on getting out the vote — they’re already there in big numbers.
And it’s likely that the Democrats will revert to some old tried-and-true tactics to get unlikely voters to the polls. In 2000, some Democratic operatives handed out cigarettes to homeless people for voting. This year, both sides have been accused of offering people food in return for voting early in the recall election. And so-called “walking around money” — actual cash surreptitiously passed to voters, which is illegal — is a problem with a long history in politics.
One advantage Walker may have, however, is that early voting — once touted as a boon to get more disadvantaged, Democratic-leaning voters to participate — hasn’t always worked out that way. It’s true that Democratic operatives can visit nursing homes and “help” elderly voters to fill out their mail-in ballots or other places, like homeless shelters, where they’re more likely to get extra votes for Democratic candidates who promise more social benefits. But making voting somewhat easier has also made it possible for busy, gainfully employed or more affluent retired people to participate in higher numbers, which favors the GOP.
If Walker does survive the recall election June 5, it will put the state of Wisconsin in political play for the GOP in the presidential election. It seemed unlikely that Wisconsin, which went for President Obama by 14 points in 2008, would be a tossup this year. But the Republican base has been energized by the unions’ attempt to oust Walker. Independents, and even some fiscally conservative Democrats, may also jump ship from Obama in the fall. If so, the electoral map looks better for Mitt Romney, which is why some in the Obama campaign are worried that their friends in the labor movement may have overreached.