Why Swing State Republican Governors Will Get Obama Re-Elected

The backlash against Republican governors across the country will have national consequences.

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The other shoe in the saga of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting crusade dropped last week, and it landed with a ton-and-a-half thud. That's the literal weight of the more than 1 million signatures in favor of Walker's recall that progressive activists gathered over a 60-day window.

That's more than 16,000 signatures collected per day. It's nearly as many people as voted for Walker in his 2010 election (1.1 million) and roughly the same number that voted for his opponent. Roughly one in every three registered Wisconsin voters signed up. And since the threshold for a recall election is 540,000 signatures, it virtually guarantees Walker will face the voters this year.

But its significance extends beyond the fate of one right-wing zealot. Walker is the best known of a class of freshmen GOP governors whose conservative power grab might be Barack Obama's not-so-secret re-election weapon.

[Read Robert Schlesinger and other columnists in U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

Walker, you will recall, ran for governor with nary a word about breaking the backs of the state's public unions and then made it a key part of his signature administration policy, an action he later compared to dropping "the bomb." He sparked a backlash that initially took the form of mass protests, with tens of thousands of enraged Wisconsinites occupying the state capitol before "occupy" became a movement.

The 1 million signatures should send a chill up the back of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or whoever the GOP taps to bear its standard. Wisconsin is a key swing state and the progressive movement just flexed some awfully strong organizational muscle there, sparked by Walker's ham-fisted overreach. The recall election, likely to occur in the late spring or early summer, will serve as a perfect progressive dry run for the Obama re-election in the fall.

And Wisconsin is not an isolated example. The Cook Political Report lists 10 states, with 142 electoral votes, as toss-ups. In that group, with 73 total electoral votes, are four states, including Wisconsin, where first-term Republican governors are foundering in the polls after their excessive policies spurred the kind of grass-roots movements that can be a huge boon to a presidential campaign.

[Read Boris Epshteyn on why Republicans need to focus on the Scott Walker recall election.]

Take Walker's neighboring colleague, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. With the help of a GOP-controlled legislature, Snyder enacted a law that allows him to appoint "emergency financial managers" in financially troubled cities and school districts. These appointed individuals would have the power to fire actual elected officials, void union contracts, terminate services, sell off assets—even eliminate whole cities or school districts. And these localized tyrants could take these actions without any public input.

It's no wonder that Michigan State University's "State of the State" poll, released in early December, found that only 19 percent of Wolverine State residents rate Snyder's performance as excellent or good (down from 31.5 percent in the spring). Critics of the law have already collected nearly 200,000 signatures for a November referendum on the law.

Snyder's neighbor to the south, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose approval rating languishes in the mid-30s, received his stinging rebuke from the public last November. By 62 to 38 percent, voters repealed his legislative centerpiece, a Wisconsin-like law that barred public sector strikes, curtailed collective bargaining rights for public workers, and terminated binding arbitration of management-labor disputes. Opponents collected more than 1 million signatures (there's that number again) to get the issue on the ballot, and raised $30 million in support of repeal, outspending the law's defenders 3 to 1. It was a stunning win for labor unions, with help from Obama's Organizing for America, a mere year after the Ohio GOP had swept every statewide office and won the legislature. "Unions and their allies have done a lot of things transferable to next year," the University of Akron's John Green told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "In some respects, the campaign was a trial run for the presidential."