Election recalls are powerful medicine with noxious side effects, best used sparingly. Did Wisconsin Democrats err in launching a campaign to oust Scott Walker? I can see arguments on both sides – and obviously, in retrospect, the calculation was a bad one for the Democrats – but I think the recall attempt was justifiable. Walker went outside the norms of political behavior: He sprung an agenda upon the voters that he did not campaign on, and it was a deliberate effort to cripple the opposition party. Walker didn’t settle for demanding concessions from the unions. He set out to destroy them, excepting Republican-friendly police and firefighter unions. It was dirty pool. He deserved to lose his job.
But with a narrow victory over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker will keep his job, at least for two more years, for two main reasons. First, he outspent his opponent eight to one, a staggering margin that is almost impossible to overcome. Second, large chunks of the swing vote bought into his procedural case against the recount, which is certainly not crazy. Exit polls showed the electorate favoring President Obama over Mitt Romney by a double-digit margin, suggesting the fundamental orientation of the state’s electorate has not changed much since 2008.
The Obama-Romney exit poll finding is probably the most surprising data point to emerge from the mess in Wisconsin. Obama has maintained strong support among minorities, and fairly strong support among college-educated white voters, but his standing with white voters lacking a college degree has fallen even below its low 2008 levels. If there’s any region where Romney ought to be making inroads, it’s upper Midwest states, where Obama still relies on blue-collar voters. Michigan and, to a lesser degree, Ohio ought to be exceptions, owing to the special circumstances of the auto bailout. Wisconsin and Iowa are ground zero for states likely to fall to Romney. Tonight’s exit polls suggest he’s much farther away than many of us believed.
But Walker’s win will certainly provide a blueprint for fellow Republicans. When they gain a majority, they can quickly move to not just wrest concessions from public sector unions but completely destroy them, which in turn eliminates one of the strongest sources of political organization for the Democratic Party. And whatever backlash develops, it’s probably not enough to outweigh the political benefit. Walker has pioneered a tactic that will likely become a staple of Republican governance. Fortune favors the bold.