What Does the Wisconsin Recall Fight Reveal About the Electorate?

BY Dante Chinni  August 10, 2011 at 9:27 AM EDT

The Democrats came close in their recall fight in the Wisconsin state senate, but they wound up a seat short — two wins in six tries. So the upper chamber in Madison stays in the hands of the GOP — and there is still another set of votes next week, where two Democrats face recall challenges.

But the Wisconsin recall votes weren’t really about that, not in the national political scene anyway. They were a test for whether GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s tough tactics against unions would face repercussions at the ballot box. They were about taking the temperature of an electorate that has been extremely divided for the last 2 ½ months, and 2 ½ years.

So what exactly happened? There will be many analyses over the next few days — stories that blame marital infidelities or bike accidents (yes, you read that right), and those things may have played a role. But negative campaign ads generally don’t win elections, they are more about driving down turnout, which didn’t seem to be an issue in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

There are a few takeaways from Tuesday’s results.

On the surface, things are not appreciably different than they were in 2010. The Democrats picked up a few seats in Wisconsin, but the Republican candidates who lost, Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper, were incumbents with a lot of personal baggage that went deeper than anything Gov. Walker did.

But dig a little deeper and get inside some of the numbers from Tuesday’s results, and there is some movement worth noting. We may be beginning to see some shifts in the American electorate.


Small Towns Stay With The GOP, But Less

In the 14th district, made up almost entirely of small-town Service Worker Center and Emptying Nest counties, went to incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, but the final tally was close: 52 percent to 48 percent. Luther had not faced an opponent in the past two elections.

In fact, in Waushara, a Service Worker Center in the district, about the same number of votes were cast on Tuesday as in Olsen’s election in 2008 — 6,300 versus 6,700 — but Olsen captured only 3,500 of those vote this time.

That may be telling in the elections to come.

As Patchwork Nation noted on our visit to the district back in July, many of the jobs in this district come from the public sector. Those are the jobs that were targeted in the budget cuts of Gov. Walker.

That’s significant because, as we have noted in more in-depth reportage, Emptying Nest and Service Worker Center counties generally tend to have more public sector jobs, and they have been pounded by the recession. Those types of county tend to vote Republican, but margins end up being very important in statewide and national elections.

If Democrats can win bigger portions of the electorate in those counties in 2012, it would greatly increase their chances for success.

But not all the news in the Wisconsin numbers is so sunny for the Democrats.

GOP Rocking the Wisconsin Burbs

At the end of the night election watchers were tuned in closely to Wisconsin’s 8th Senate district, where incumbent GOP Sen. Alberta Darling was battling Rep. Sandy Pasch. Darling wound up winning the seat on the strength of her vote in the wealthy Monied Burb counties around Milwaukee.

The Monied Burb counties in Wisconsin tend to be a bit more conservative than average, but even by Wisconsin standards Darling’s tallies were impressive. She carried all of the Burb counties in the district — Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha — with at least 66 percent of the vote. In fact, she did better in those counties than she did in her last election in 2008.

That should concern Democrats.

It may be that the Monied Burbs are the kinds of places where GOP efforts to strike at public sector unions could win voters. There are many well-paid private sector employers here. Many of them have seen a lot of cuts in benefits over the past decade and they may not be pleased with the benefits public sector workers receive. Many news stories have explored this topic.

Don’t be surprised if that issue reemerges, directly or indirectly, in the 2012 presidential race. The Monied Burbs are always critical to deciding who wins national elections. And it may be that Wisconsin’s recalls have revealed a wedge issue for the GOP.

Tuesday is just over. The final tallies aren’t even certified yet, and we’ll dig into them in greater detail in the coming days. But they seem to point to more changes ahead — inside Wisconsin, and out.