The relevance of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's victory over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a recall election on Tuesday is easy to overhype, but one thing is clear. If voters in the labor-strong, Midwestern moderate-to-liberal state approved of his handling of the state budget – truly the central issue for voters – by curbing public union power and asking them to contribute more for their benefits alongside spending and tax cuts, other Republican governors are going to take note.
Already, the strong field of GOP governors elected in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party momentum were on the same track – from John Kasich in Ohio, to Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine and Nikki Haley in South Carolina. And they all have had varying levels of success and approval ratings, which in the case of LePage and Scott are abysmal. But armed with the stamp of approval voters gave Walker, after heated protests drew up to 100,000 demonstrators to the state house, there's likely no looking back for this crop of conservative reformers.
"They've all taken similar approaches, trying to control the influence of unions, reduce spending, cut taxes coming out of that wave of Tea Party elections in 2010," says Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"It's a signal to them they should keep on marching and they shouldn't fear so much that the electorate thinks they have over-reached because here's a state that votes Democratic as often as it votes Republican and a pretty conservative Republican governor has been able to hang on," he says.
The groundwork laid by the GOP state leaders could also reap dividends for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the fall, if Democrats are to be believed. Many feel that laws requiring voters to present identification at the polls and the weakening of collective bargaining power for public unions are changes that have been pursued so Republicans can permanently shift the political landscape. Minority voters, the poor and disabled voters who tend to favor Democrats are expected to be the most affected by voter ID laws, Democrats say, not people committing the relatively rare crime of voter fraud.
In what's expected to be a tightly contested presidential election, especially in states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio, Democrats worry those laws could be consequential.
As for Wisconsin, which has gone for the Democratic presidential nominee every election since 1988, according to Burden, it's now likely on the map as a swing state even though exit polls showed voters supporting Obama over Romney by about 10 percentage points. Many have questioned the accuracy of those polls, which also indicated the race between Walker and Barrett was a virtual tie, though in fact Walker won 53 percent to Barrett's 46 percent. Additionally, although turnout for the special election was higher than in 2010 when Walker was first elected in a match-up with Barrett by 5 percentage points, it was lower than traditional presidential elections. And also not to be overlooked is the spending in the race - Walker raised $30.5 million versus Barrett's $3.9 million, which also doesn't account for spending by outside groups. In total, more than $62 million was spent, according to the Associated Press.
"It's a state that the national parties always look at and they both consider important early on, but often in the end of the campaign the state trends Democratic and the Republicans walk away and pull out and focus on other states," says Burden. "I think the Romney campaign will give Wisconsin more weight in their calculus and rely on the networks of donors and activists and phone-callers that Walker's folks have put together."
The Obama campaign, which many argue was largely absent from the race, earlier this week listed Wisconsin as a swing state, perhaps attempting to pre-empt any Republican momentum that might be gained from a Walker victory.
The final conclusion to draw from the race is that despite an apparent recoil from the Tea Party fervor of 2009 and 2010 in favor of Occupy protests and labor rallies, voters did not reject Walker's embodiment of the GOP's austere principles. This indicates good things for Republicans headed into the November election and a sign to Democrats that they need a stronger message if they want to record more victories.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.
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