Heilemann: Is Wisconsin Now a Toss-up State?

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Scott Walker: Balls-to-the-wall conservative. Photo: Scott Olson/2012 Getty Images

No matter how you parse the results of yesterday’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin, a number of conclusions are inescapable.

First, the outcome was a huge and galvanizing victory for Scott Walker, his brand of balls-to-the-wall conservatism, and the national Republican forces that consider him a hero. Second, it was a crushing loss for the labor movement and Democrats nationally who turned his ouster into a crusade. And third, it was a rebuke to the notion of recalls generally, with nearly seven out of ten voters telling exit pollsters they believe such efforts are either never legitimate or only justified in cases when official misconduct has occurred (Walker carried those groups 90 to 9 percent and 68 to 31 percent, respectively). The left was always taking a risk in pursuing this recall, as it would be an uphill fight, and in the end, the incline in question proved to be nearly vertical.

But now that the smoke has cleared — or, in the parlance of the locals, the beer-soaked brats have been removed from the grill and the melted Muenster scraped off the pan — the question on most political minds is this: What, if any, effect will a statewide race that was aggressively nationalized by all of its participants (including, of course, the media) have on the presidential campaign? And here the answer is a bit less clear — though only a bit.

In the broadest sense, of course, the clearest message from Wisconsin has to do with the power of money. Depending on how you count, Walker and his out-of-state allies outspent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by somewhere between five and eight to one. With both sides of the battle intensely energized and working feverishly to turn out their voters, the financial disparity was simply too great for Democrats to overcome.

That money talks and big money bellows is not a novel lesson, to be sure. But it is one that will echo loudly in the anterooms where conservative millionaires and billionaires reside, further emboldening them to write ginormous checks to the super-PACs that will play a huge role in the general election. In my cover story in last week’s magazine, I reported on the worries in Chicago and the White House about the likelihood that President Obama and his adherents will be outspent by Mitt Romney and his this summer and fall. The Walker victory will only help turn that prospect from very likely to all but certain.

In the narrower sense of whether Wisconsin is now in play, the short answer is yes — if by "in play" you mean it's a state in which money, manpower, and air support will be deployed to a meaningful degree by both sides.

Up until yesterday, the Obama and Romney campaigns had been keeping their powder dry in the Badger State. Neither had run any advertising there, and both admitted that they were waiting for the recall before figuring out their plans. By this morning, however, it was clear that on the Republican side, Wisconsin had become a target state — or at least one worthy of the investment of resources such that Team Obama would feel compelled to do the same. An official from the Republican National Committee (whose chairman, Reince Priebus, is a cheesehead) confirmed to Politico that Walker’s two dozen recall-campaign offices would be taken over by the Romney campaign as soon as the end of this week. And among the heaviest-hitting GOP super-PACs, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, there is already talk about going up on the air in Wisconsin and staying there for the duration.

It was Rove, recall, who authored the “3-2-1” electoral map strategy to which the Romney campaign is basically adhering: Win back the three traditional Republican strongholds that Obama carried in 2008 (Indiana, North Carolina, and Viriginia), carry the two perennial megabattleground states (Florida and Ohio), and snatch away one from a group of pure jump-ball contests (Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada). While Wisconsin still isn't firmly in that last category, Republicans believe that yesterday’s results suggest it can be moved there. And there are signs that Team Obama, to its dismay, might now concede that point.

A month ago, when I spent many hours with the president’s people dissecting the electoral map, their view was very much otherwise. They pointed confidently to the state’s recent history in presidential elections: for Dukakis in 1988, Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004, and Obama (by a whopping 14 points) in 2008. They pointed to the improving economic conditions in Wisconsin and across the Rust Belt, due to no small extent to Obama’s rescue of the auto industry. And they pointed to their polling. “Right now, we’re at a place where Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all fine,” a senior White House official told me. “We’re not in danger of losing one of those states.”

Then, on Monday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, in a video on the campaign’s website, listed Wisconsin as a “toss-up” state. Now, some elements of Messina’s map were laden with spin: North Carolina was also listed as a toss-up, but the Obamans are privately more pessimistic than that, and Colorado was listed that way too, though they are privately quite confident about it. Publicly calling Wisconsin a toss-up, in other words, could be an attempt to lure Romney into wasting money on a state that Team Obama considers safe.

And certainly there is some evidence from yesterday’s exit polls that give credence to that possibility — most obviously the fact that the same voters who favored Walker over Barrett by a 53-46 margin also said they favored Obama over Romney by a 51-44 spread.

If the exit polls on this question are accurate — and they are consistent with the last two public polls in the state — seven points will be a lot of ground for the Republican nominee to make up. On the other hand, the state has been shifting rightward consistently since 2008, and just a couple of points-worth of tightening would leave the president with little choice but to defend the state vigorously, devoting time and money to Wisconsin that he and his lieutenants would prefer to dole out in more competitive arenas.

For the Obamans, the greatest comfort has always been their confidence that they entered the general election with a floor of 246 electoral votes: those coming from the nineteen states (plus the District of Columbia) that Kerry won in 2004. “As long as we hold those, we have a bunch of combinations that get us to 270 that are very doable,” the same White House official told me. “But if we lose one of the Kerry states, the map gets a whole lot harder.”

Indeed it does. And though I’d be willing to bet that in the end, Obama holds onto Wisconsin, it now looks like doing so will entail a tussle that, for Chicago, will be entirely unwelcome.