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How Walker’s Win in Wisconsin Might Shape Obama-Romney Race

June 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After a decisive victory Tuesday, embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to successfully turn back a recall election. Gwen Ifill, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert and USA Today's Susan Page discuss the high turnout and how the vote may influence November's elections.
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GWEN IFILL: The aftershocks from Wisconsin’s recall election were still resonating today after Republican Scott Walker convincingly turned back a challenge from Democrat Tom Barrett in a bitterly fought contest.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), Wisconsin: The election is done. We don’t have opponents anymore.

GWEN IFILL: Scott Walker was back on the job in Wisconsin today after becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Tonight, we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: Walker easily defeated his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by 53 percent to 46 percent, a spread even greater than two years ago, when the two first faced off.

At a victory rally in Waukesha last night, Walker struck a conciliatory tone.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Tomorrow is the day after the election, and tomorrow we are now no longer opponents. Tomorrow, we are one as Wisconsinites, so together we can move Wisconsin forward.

GWEN IFILL: Walker’s move to strip away collective bargaining rights for most public employees last year sparked the angry recall campaign. But after last night’s defeat, Barrett also called for both sides to move past polarization.

TOM BARRETT (D): We are a state that has been deeply divided, and it is up to all of us, our side and their side, to listen — to listen to each other and to try to do what’s right for everyone in this state.

GWEN IFILL: The Wisconsin result was a big defeat for organized labor, which helped lead the recall effort. And although neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney was directly involved in the race, it has thrust Wisconsin into the national political spotlight.

Exit polls show that, in November, Wisconsin voters would favor the president over Romney in November by 51 percent to 44 percent, the same margin by which Walker, the Republican, beat Barrett, the Democrat, last night.

But Marquette Law School polling director Charles Franklin says yesterday’s vote shouldn’t be considered predictive.

CHARLES FRANKLIN, Marquette University Law School: When we look at a highly polarized electorate and imagine that it carries over to every aspect of political life, we’re making a mistake. The public is actually more fluid than that and is fully capable of going with Walker on the one hand and Obama on the other.

GWEN IFILL: The president won Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008. Both campaigns concede that the state will be much closer this time around.

Romney and Obama swept primaries in five other states Tuesday. In New Jersey, Congressman Bill Pascrell bested fellow Democratic incumbent Steve Rothman after redrawn district lines pitted them against one another. And in keeping with the anti-union mood on view in Wisconsin, voters in San Jose and San Diego approved cuts to retirement benefits for city workers.

So will the Wisconsin story change the campaign, the country?

For more, we turn to Craig Gilbert of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today.

So, Craig Gilbert, we have talked about this before. Now you can tell us the answer. How did Scott Walker do it?

CRAIG GILBERT, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Well, ironically, as polarized as Wisconsin is, I think Charles Franklin is right. There is a middle. There are ticket-splitters. There are swing voters.

Those Obama/Walker supporters we see in the exit polls, which is really about 10 percent of the people who voted Tuesday, really symbolize that group. And Scott Walker won that battle. So it’s — everybody is not in one of these two armed camps, not to downplay it at all. But this will come into play in November in the battle for Wisconsin in the presidential race.

President Obama has a narrow lead right now in the polling, but, you know, he has to close the deal with these pragmatic voters that are not voting on ideology. They’re voting on performance and they’re voting on optimism, pessimism and they’re voting the economy.

GWEN IFILL: Craig, was the margin of victory a surprise to you?

CRAIG GILBERT: You know, not a shock.

I mean, one — in fact, Charles Franklin’s poll had it exactly at seven points. I thought it would be a little bit closer. A lot of Republicans thought it would be closer to a three- or four-point race, rather than a six- or seven-point race. So it would have been — I mean, the real shock to the political world would have been if Scott Walker had lost. He’d been ahead in every opinion poll.

GWEN IFILL: Susan, I wonder sometimes, even though there have only been three of these kinds of recalls mounted, in the other two cases, one in the 1920 and one in California that we know about, that maybe a recall is just a step too far, that maybe it’s too drastic a move?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I think clearly the exit polls in Wisconsin indicate that.

Six out of 10 voters said that a recall should be reserved for situations where there’s official misconduct, which wasn’t the case here. What the case here was that the governor had really angered a lot of public employee workers and their supporters, and they felt he had gone politically too far, not that there was a scandal around his name.

And so I think that was a — certainly a factor in — with the big turnout, bigger turnout than in the general election they had two years ago and also in an expanded margin of victory for him.

GWEN IFILL: Does that pro-Walker vote that’s not necessarily anti-Obama bode — tell something to either of these campaigns about a way forward outside of Wisconsin?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, it does say there are some voters in the middle. I think the number of voters in the middle is probably pretty small.

And I think if you look at Wisconsin in particular, those are the voters Romney’s going to target, right? I mean, he can go after Walker supporters who are not yet supporting him. He can win Wisconsin, a state that has not gone Republican since 1984.

Of the swing states we’re looking at, the 12 swing states we think are in play this year, Wisconsin is the one that has the strongest Democratic history and in that way might be the biggest surprise on that list.

GWEN IFILL: Craig, Democrats today have been saying part of the problem for them was that they were outspent so grievously by outside groups who came in and poured more than $60 million into this Wisconsin recall race. Is that so? Did money drive the outcome?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, money always matters.

It may not have mattered as much in some respects, the way we typically think about it in terms of television, because opinions were very fixed about the governor. But it — there’s no question it mattered. It went into organization. It went into a lot of aspects of this campaign.

I think the bigger question for Democrats going forward is not the role that money played just in this election, but are they going to be able to achieve anything like financial parity in state elections with Republicans?

I mean, given the severe financial stress these elections are now putting on a retrenched labor movement and given the kind of spigots opening on the right for big individual givers and for groups, it just — it’s very ominous, I think, just purely in financial terms for the Democrats competing going forward in state elections.

GWEN IFILL: Susan, why aren’t the spigots opening on the left? That’s what the labor union movement was supposed to provide, this offsetting fund-raising challenge. Instead, labor kind of took one to the chin this time.

SUSAN PAGE: Well, labor is still spending a lot of money, but they’re spending — in this case spending money on behalf of labor, not on behalf of the general national Democratic Party or a lot of state races.

And I agree that, of the losers, the losers — Tom Barrett certainly loser last night, but also public employee unions — it’s now clearly politically possible for a governor to go after the public sector, the public employee unions in his state and survive politically.

And I would think we’d see repercussions for that in other states, states with Republican governors, even states with Democratic governors.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re watching New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana?

SUSAN PAGE: New York, California. Many states find themselves in fiscal difficulty now. And many of them have these pension plans that are underfunded for public sector workers and that they would like to move to the kind of 401(k) plans that a lot of us have in the private sector.

GWEN IFILL: Craig, did the Democrats and the unions pick a fight here that they could never win? Did they just miscalculate?

CRAIG GILBERT: It sort of looks like it certainly in retrospect.

And, obviously, there were people, not just in the Democratic Party, but in the labor movement, who wondered about that themselves, who in some cases argued against doing this. If they hadn’t done the recall fight against the governor and just done the recall fight for the legislature, they probably would have been perceived as taking away some important victories, because over the course of a lot of recall elections at the legislative level, they have gained three seats in the state Senate and taken control of the state Senate.

But it’s interesting to look at what happened in Ohio compared to what happened in Wisconsin. In Ohio, they had a referendum. They won that referendum. There were some differences in the substance of the law. But in Wisconsin, because it’s a recall, it gets politicized and it becomes inevitably not just an argument about labor policy, but you start losing any Republican allies you have when you talk about recalling a Republican governor.

GWEN IFILL: And, Susan, finally, does this make Wisconsin a critical state in the fall and do other states now become — do you start reordering them in your tossup lists?

SUSAN PAGE: I think it’s a sign of changes we have seen all across that Great Lakes region, that industrial belt, which has usually — long been a Democratic base, is now increasingly a harder place for Democrats to win, although still Democratic-leaning.

And then you look at states like Colorado and Nevada, which have been historically Republican states, but are trending Democratic, with a kind of coalition of Hispanics and college-educated whites here. So I think you do see big shifts in kind of the political landscape of the country and Wisconsin is one sign of that.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we will keep watching all of those shifts with you, Susan Page, and you, Craig Gilbert.

Thank you both very much.

SUSAN PAGE: Hey, thank you, Gwen.