TOPICS > Politics

Wis. Voters Weigh in With ‘Mixed Verdict’ for GOP, Democrats

August 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Wisconsin Republicans defied a bid to oust them from control of the state Senate Tuesday in recall battles waged fiercely by anti-tax groups and public employee unions. Margaret Warner discusses the meaning of the recall results and the Badger State's political direction with Craig Gilbert of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, the nationally watched struggle for the state Senate in Wisconsin.

Republicans defied a bid to oust them from power on Tuesday in a recall battle waged fiercely by unions for public employees and by anti-tax groups.

Wisconsin voters lined up to cast ballots in huge numbers for an off-year summertime election — at stake, the Republicans’ approach to deficit reduction.

MAN: This is people saying, hey, we want — we want more of a voice in what’s happening in our nation, in our country, in our state.

MAN: It’s just like you say when you’re a carpenter: You measure twice and you cut once. We already put her in office once. What do you want to take her out for?

MARGARET WARNER: In the end, two Republican state senators did lose their jobs, but four kept theirs. That means the GOP will retain control of the state Senate by at least a one-vote margin.

After the vote, Republican Gov. Scott Walker struck a conciliatory note, saying in a statement, “I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward.”

GOV. SCOTT WALKER, R-Wis.: So help me God.

MARGARET WARNER: Walker’s tone was decidedly more combative earlier this year, shortly after he took office and fellow Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: We have got an economic and fiscal crisis in this state and we need leaders who are going to stand up and look at things differently than what we have done in the past.

PROTESTERS: Scott Walker, shame on you!

MARGARET WARNER: It wasn’t long before mass protests erupted over Walker’s approach to cutting the state’s $3.6 billion deficit. He proposed slashing spending, raising no taxes and, most controversial of all, sharply curtailing public employees’ right to collective bargaining.

Teachers, firefighters, prison guards and their supporters staged sit-ins under the state capitol dome and rallied through cold winter nights.

WOMAN: This is not about protecting our pay and our benefits. It’s about protecting our right to collectively bargain.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MARGARET WARNER: Democrats delayed a vote for weeks, fleeing Wisconsin to leave the state Senate short of a quorum. But Walker ultimately got to sign the measure into law after Republicans found a way to vote without the Democrats. That, in turn, triggered the recall drive.

On the NewsHour last month, the governor was asked if he had tried to move too sharply too fast.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: I think what we weren’t ready for — and I have said this before, if I had to make a change — was to spend more time in January and February building the case. But I think what we weren’t prepared for was the national focus, the national attention, the national money that came in.

MARGARET WARNER: An unprecedented $35 million was spent on the recall campaigns, much of it on nearly nonstop TV ads, and much of it financed by national unions and interest groups.

NARRATOR: Representative Sandy Pasch let them down.

MARGARET WARNER: Some voters said the money could have been better spent.

WOMAN: If they would have saved all the money that they have put into all of this, they would have money to work with. It’s crazy.

MARGARET WARNER: Next week, two Democratic senators face recalls of their own.

And for more on the meaning of the recall results, we are joined by Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and author of the blog The Wisconsin Voter.

And, Craig, welcome. Thank you for coming in.

CRAIG GILBERT, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Good to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: So, first of all, what are the party leaders on each side saying about these results and what they say explains them?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, Democrats are saying that they fell short, but they did something historic. They recalled two Republican senators in one election, never happened before in the state of Wisconsin, and they were fighting uphill in districts that leaned Republican, so it was a big mountain to climb.

Republicans are pointing out, quite legitimately, that Democrats put a lot of money and effort into this and fell short. I mean, they fell one seat short of dealing a real body blow to Gov. Walker and his agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have been covering Wisconsin politics a long time. What do you think explains it? What do you think were the important factors?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, I think one reason Democrats did fall short is because that they were playing on Republican turf. Five of the six districts were Republican districts. That’s what happens when you try to recall an incumbent in the other party.

And also the other thing that happened was Republican voters turned out to be just as motivated as Democratic voters. We didn’t know that going in. We knew Democrats and their labor allies were very jacked up about this election. They were up in arms over Gov. Walker’s agenda.

But Gov. Walker is arguably the most polarizing governor in America, in terms of his almost unanimous support among Republicans and his unanimous opposition among Democrats. And that brings out people on both sides.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying actually the high turnout helped the Republicans?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, it did.

I think, if you’re in a recall election, you’re the opposition, you want to take advantage of a low — of a small electorate and really skew the electorate toward your side.

MARGARET WARNER: Get the angry people out.

CRAIG GILBERT: Get the angry people out and have the angry people really control the election. And that was really neutralized to some degree in some key districts by how motivated the Republican base is.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we have — I have been reading that the spending for these races was absolutely unprecedented, something like $35 million and that most of that financing came from outside the state.

Who were the groups?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, on the left, they were the labor unions, of course, primarily, and some progressive groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Like?

CRAIG GILBERT: Like EMILY’s List and a number of other organizations. On the right — the groups on the right tended to be more — a little more shadowy. They weren’t — they were spending their money in a way that didn’t have to be reported.

So, you didn’t know exactly what they were spending or where the money was coming from.

MARGARET WARNER: But it has been said, for instance, that Club For Growth…

CRAIG GILBERT: Yes. The Wisconsin chapter of Club For Growth was a big player.

MARGARET WARNER: … the anti-tax group…

CRAIG GILBERT: And these groups played a real role. I mean, they — their role, in some respects, was to try to disqualify some of the Democratic challengers. And some of these challengers had baggage that they exploited.

MARGARET WARNER: And the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers?

CRAIG GILBERT: We don’t know where the money is coming from. We really don’t, because it doesn’t have to be reported.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about the campaign debate itself as it unfolded? We saw some of these ads. They didn’t look like they were only about collective bargaining.  

CRAIG GILBERT: No, most of the ads were not about collective bargaining.

I think the Democrats decided — to some degree, the Republicans decided — that people knew how they felt about that issue. And even though that is the issue that produced this whole situation we’re in, the Democrats talked about Medicare. They talked about the broader budget issues of school cuts.

And the Republicans ran on typically Republican themes of cutting taxes and fiscal conservatism. So, it became more of a stock partisan message war than just a labor battle.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, was it still focused on the battle over the budget deficit in Wisconsin, or did they broaden it out to really talk about the Republicans’ approach to deficit reduction nationally?

CRAIG GILBERT: Some of the Democratic ads did talk about Medicare. The author of that plan, of course, is Paul Ryan from Wisconsin. And they tried to tie Medicare cuts to Republican candidates. It’s not clear how effective that was.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as a longtime analyst of Wisconsin voting trends, as you know, this race, as the governor said, was eagerly watched nationally. Do you think it can be read as a harbinger of Wisconsin voters’ attitudes going into the 2012 election?

CRAIG GILBERT: Yes, but it’s a very mixed verdict.

I mean, we had a big blowout for Barack Obama in 2008. That’s gone. He’s not going to have that in 2012. He’s going to have a real tough slog, especially given the economy. We had the best Republican year since 1938 last year in Wisconsin. And that’s not going to be the electorate of 2012 either.

There are some signs, if you look at the voting returns this time around, that there was some erosion in Republican support. It wasn’t enough to cost them the state Senate. But I think where we are is something closer to 2004. The election in Wisconsin in 2004 between Bush and Kerry was decided by a fraction of a percentage point, so very divided and an intensely mobilized electorate.

MARGARET WARNER: So, definitely a swing state.

What does this do — the Democrats had vowed to now mount a recall challenge to Gov. Walker when he becomes eligible after a year in office, I think, in January. Has this dimmed that?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, it complicates it, both for financial reasons, is labor going to be able to put that kind of money into it after spending all the money this year, and also for psychological reasons. I mean, they’re not going to sort of springboard from the energy and the boost of having taken back the state Senate.

It’s more complicated. I think we will still see a recall drive against the governor. But Democrats have to make some tough decisions about that and tough decisions about the timing.

MARGARET WARNER: And what’s next for organized labor nationally?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, they have a big referendum in Ohio coming up, where they’re taking on the law that was passed in Ohio that — that curtailed collective bargaining rights there.

And — and I think there’s clearly frustration among labor that they fell just short of their goal. There’s frustration that, with all these big issues in play, some of these races came down to the personal vagaries and flaws of candidates.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, back to Wisconsin for a minute, Gov. Walker, we saw this conciliatory statement from him. Do you think he’s going to kind of cool his jets, or is he going to push forward with this — he still has other items on his agenda.

CRAIG GILBERT: He has other items, but they have already enacted so much of their agenda that I think they can, to some small degree, rest on their laurels.

They have — unless they can pick off a Democratic legislator or two next week, they are going to have a much smaller margin in the state Senate. And it’s clear that Gov. Walker is trying to redefine himself a little bit as a less polarizing governor.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Craig Gilbert of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, thank you so much.

CRAIG GILBERT: Pleasure.