If you pause and listen carefully, you might be able to hear the despair coming from Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist and communications director, as the meaning of Wisconsin’s recall election becomes clear.
In the final hours before Governor Scott Walker’s victory, with the writing on the wall, President Obama and his campaign could only muster a tweet and a last-minute video for challenger Tom Barrett. But do not let that tepid support fool you: Democrats and their union allies spent an astronomical amount on a judicial election, four state legislative recalls and the recall of Governor Walker, only to lose.
The spin has already begun. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Wisconsin recall election “probably won’t tell us much about a future race.” Regardless of what you hear, the results are a colossal failure for Democrats and President Obama’s re-election efforts. Even former Pennsylvania governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Rendell, speaking on MSNBC last week, said the recall election was a “mistake.”
Democrats, Big Labor and Team Obama initially put all their chips on the table, organizing a massive get-out-the-vote effort to unseat Walker. The day before the recall, Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute illustrated just how much money Big Labor has spent: more than $21 million. Earlier in the month, the MacIver Institute put up a matrix to “put an end to any stories that Big Labor, the Democratic Party and other left-wing organizations aren’t going all out to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.” The spin aside, Team Obama, Big Labor and Democrats were heavily invested and suffered a huge loss in Wisconsin.
The recall sums up a season of abject failure for Democrats in Wisconsin. Since taking office in January 2011, Governor Walker has pushed for audacious spending cuts, comprehensive improvements to public-employee union benefits and the most agitating reform to the union monolith: lasting changes to Wisconsin’s collective bargaining laws.
Democratic legislators responded by childishly fleeing the state in order to prevent a quorum in the State Senate, while the Republican majority assured passage of Walker’s budget. After weeks of wringing their hands over their absent colleagues, the Republicans found a way to pass Walker’s budget.
In response, the left tried to invalidate Walker’s reforms by attempting to alter the composition of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Liberals organized a “record setting” challenge to incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Prosser’s challenger, ultra-progressive JoAnne Kloppenburg, was the left’s answer to all their union reform problems. The total cost of the race between Prosser and Kloppenburg topped $3 million. In the end, Prosser won re-election and Walker’s reforms were upheld.
The Democrats’ war on Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans continued, with groups organizing the recall of four state senators in an attempt to recapture the Wisconsin Senate and block Walker’s reforms. In their attempt to take back the Wisconsin Senate, Democrats and their backers spent $23.4 million, with outside groups spending $18.6 million against Republicans. But the attempt failed and Republicans triumphed.
Now, Democrats have lost yet another high-profile Wisconsin race. With this string of events taking place in a state that has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984 and is considered the birthplace of modern progressivism, Republicans must be starting to like their chances in November. Once considered an unassailable Democratic stronghold, Wisconsin is moving into the almost unthinkable swing-state territory.
As if the wind was not blowing hard enough against Democrats and Team Obama, Governor Walker’s reforms have been a resounding success. Walker cut a $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or curtailing state services, and he is expected to create a $150 million budget surplus by the end of the year.
While Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, it’s important to remember that George W. Bush came close to winning the state in 2000 and 2004, missing by 0.22 and 0.4 percent respectively. The efforts by Democrats this season have forced Republicans to build a grassroots machine. Their actions have proven to be very successful, pushing the estimated voter turnout to a whopping 60 to 65 percent of all adults. This machine will no doubt be in full operation in November, causing Axelrod’s and Messina’s hearts to flutter.
President Obama and Democrats are in trouble and no amount of Washington spin will change the facts in Wisconsin. Unions had their way for decades, but times change. And this time, it is not just the future of organized labor that is in peril, it is the political future of one of their biggest supporters: President Obama.
Thomas Grier writes on constitutional law, campaigns and elections, and pro-growth policy. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and Arizona State University. He lives in Arizona with his beautiful wife and two amazing children.