Today, Democratic voters in Wisconsin will choose a standard bearer for the recall election against Scott Walker. This will end a fairly divisive period for Wisconsin Democrats, who had trouble settling on one candidate to take on Walker, especially after the most attractive option, former Senator Russ Feingold, declined the opportunity. The faithful were left with two candidates who had a history of losing statewide elections, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk.
It looks like Barrett will cruise today. Despite massive labor support on her behalf, Falk has trailed in most pre-election polls, perhaps because she has also not fared as well as Barrett in head-to-head matchups against Walker. Barrett released a final ad in the race that looked forward to the next election far more than dealing with the current one. Despite Barrett’s scattershot history with unions, the impetus for the recall, he locked up most of the establishment report in the short period after getting into the race, and that looks to be enough to propel him to victory.
So the candidate most closely associated with the Wisconsin uprising and the forces that nurtured it will in all likelihood not become the candidate Scott Walker will face next month. And it’s undeniable that the primary has led to a distraction, taking away from the main focus of the recall, and allowing Walker to sit back and bide his time with his large war chest, which he has only begun to deploy against Barrett. Labor’s decision to put the stripping of collective bargaining rights in the background of their recall against Walker has led to what amounts to letting Walker off the hook, although polls are still neck-and-neck, and the real race starts tomorrow.
Wisconsinite John Nichols has looked ahead as well. He thinks that turnout today will give some sense as to the intensity of the recall effort against Walker, and whether it has lagged in recent weeks. In addition, he’s looking at the crossover votes – anyone can vote in either primary in Wisconsin – for signs of post-primary strength.
I think Wisconsin native Rick Perlstein has a better bead on the race, however, and what it will tell us about US politics going forward.
The voting in Wisconsin this spring “will be the first national test of the possibility of democracy in the Citizens United era,” writes Ruth Conniff of the Madison-based magazine The Progressive, referring to the historic Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited spending on polticial campaigns. If conservatives succeed in breaking public unions in Wisconsin, they will try the same thing everywhere, with mind-blowing seriousness. Already by this February, Walker, taking advantage of a loophole that allows donors to recall targets to blow through the state’s $10,000 contribution cap, had raised an astonishing $12.2 million dollars; then, by April, he had added $13.2 million more.
That’s about twenty-five bucks for every Wisconsinite who casts a vote for a Republican in a typical off-year election – although, of course, most of that money does not come from Wisconsinites but from corporate titans and movement conservatives for whom, as per usual on the right, Walker’s law-skirting brazenness has made him a hero, not a pariah. For over a year now he’s been touring the nation, seeing their favors, explaining his plans to “make big, fundamental, permanent structural changes” to the shape of governing in America.
There is a sense that money will mean less in such a polarized electoral battlefield with few persuadables. And we’ll have to see how labor reacts and reassesses with a Barrett victory. But at the root, in Wisconsin you will have a battle between people power and the forces of big money. In four weeks, we shall know who succeeded.