On June 5, voters in the US state of Wisconsin will decide in a special election whether to “recall”, or remove, Republican governor Scott Walker from office.
Last winter, one million state residents signed a petition demanding the recall of Walker, a darling of the conservative Tea Party movement, whose gloves-off approach with public-sector unions polarised the state, spawned mass protests, and garnered national media attention.
Unlike most governors’ races, the outcome in Wisconsin – located in the United States’ Midwest region, an electoral battleground roughly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans – will be felt far beyond state borders.
In two indications of its importance, a staggering $60m has been spent on the election, and heavyweights including former president Bill Clinton and a slew of prominent Republican governors have visited the state in attempts to sway the race in their party’s favour.
“It’s certainly kind of a bellwether of the fall elections” for president, says Richard Church, chairman of the Republican Party in central Wisconsin’s Adams County. Church believes the election will highlight “what the attitudes of the voters are regarding things like government spending and taxes” in the Midwest.
|In 2011, protesters in Wisconsin decried a bill ending collective bargaining for most public unions [Reuters]|
The recall’s outcome will also affect the willingness of conservative governors to target unions representing state employees.
“If the recall is successful,” says Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, “governors in other states will be much more reluctant to address the fiscal issues by cutting back on the privileges granted to public employee unions, and attempting to engage in pension and benefit reform”.
If recalled from office and replaced by his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, Walker would be just the third governor in US history to have been booted mid-term by voters.
Roots of the recall
When Walker assumed office in 2011, Wisconsin faced a projected $3.6bn budget deficit. The centrepiece of his solution: end public-sector unions’ rights to collectively bargain for anything but wage increases, and require state employees to contribute more to their pension and health insurance plans.
The governor angered many on the left by refusing to negotiate with the unions. “If you’re going to negotiate in good faith, you have to have something to offer,” he explained in a radio interview. “We don’t have anything to offer.”
Alex Hanna, who until last week served as a co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), which represents about 2,800 TAs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the legislation has also made it “next to impossible” for the TAA to be recertified as a union, because it requires public unions to hold cumbersome annual elections.
Though it eventually became law, Walker’s bill provoked an unexpectedly strong reaction, with as many as 100,000 people protesting in Madison, the state capital. In November 2011, a movement was mounted to recall the governor, which gathered one million signatures in favour of removing him. Related recall efforts have already claimed the scalps of several Republican state senators.
But Walker’s popularity has recovered since last year, and the latest public opinion polls show him with a roughly seven-point lead over Barrett.
“Like it or not, he’s got a plan, and has certainly executed. People like that,” says Joel Rogers, the director of progressive think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy. “He’s a very good politician, very clear on message. People are always attracted to success and power, which he’s got in spades. And some are thrilled that Wisconsin is again an example to the nation.”
One factor in Walker’s edge has been his ability to clobber his opponent when it comes to fundraising. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has raised more than $30m, including $5m in the last month alone. Barrett’s campaign, by contrast, has garnered a paltry $4m.
“People understand all over the country that how this race turns out is going to affect them in their state.”
– Richard Church
About 60 per cent of donations to Walker’s campaign have come from out of state, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. These include $250,000 from Nevada casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, another quarter million from the owner of the Orlando Magic basketball team, and $50,000 from Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton.
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, has spent $700,000 in television advertisements supporting Walker.
Barrett, too, has received funding from outside Wisconsin, but not nearly as much.
Why do so many out-of-staters care about the election? John Ahlquist, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describes the state as being “dead centre: it’s average in pretty much every way”. Donors to Walker’s campaign, he believes, “clearly see this [the recall election] as part of a national strategy or national set of outcomes”.
And Church says that “people understand all over the country that how this race turns out is going to affect them in their state: it’s going to affect their governors, it’s going to affect their legislatures”.
State of the unions
And it will affect labour unions, both in Wisconsin and beyond. Given Walker’s actions, public-sector unions are among the most vociferous advocates of recalling the governor.
In recent years, conservatives across the US have increasingly criticised public-sector unions, whose political clout they say is responsible for overly generous salaries and benefits, thereby widening state budget deficits.
Bill Clinton campaigned for Barrett on June 1, urging Wisconsin voters to recall Governor Scott Walker [AP]
Ahlquist, however, argues that efforts to limit these unions’ collective bargaining power are more about politics than economics. “It’s very clearly an attack on the organisational and financial support base of their [Republicans’] political opponents.”
Unions in the US are weaker than they were 40 years ago, but they remain contenders in the political arena. Although they donate much less money to candidates than business interests do, unions still pack a punch: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the country’s biggest unions, spent $91m on the 2010 elections. And labour’s cash goes overwhelmingly to Democrats: 94 per cent in the last election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a website that tracks money in US politics.
Some unions, though, are disappointed with what they see as lack of support from the Democratic Party. A party strategy memo on the recall election made no mention of unions, and Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, explained to Mother Jones magazine in an interview that “collective bargaining is not moving people”.
The recall election may not predict how Wisconsin or other Midwestern states will vote in the presidential election in November, because special elections tend to see much lower rates of voter turnout.
But the outcome will influence whether legislators in other states decide to pursue similar measures as Walker. If the governor avoids being recalled, Ahlquist predicts there will be “sustained attacks” on public-sector unions elsewhere.
In Wisconsin itself, says Rogers, Walker will interpret a victory over Barrett as “a popular mandate, of the sort he didn’t have before, to turn this state into a colder version of Mississippi”, a state where laws forbid most public-sector unions from collective bargaining.
Ultimately, the recall will help to define what is politically feasible in the US. “The Democrats want to send a message that you can’t do this kind of thing and survive,” says Esenberg. “And the Republicans want to send a message that you can.”
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier