WASHINGTON – For only the third time in American history, a state governor is facing the humiliating prospect of getting tossed from office on Tuesday as the result of a recall election.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is hoping to avoid the fate that befell the governors of California and North Dakota, who went down in defeat in 2003 and 1921 respectively. Instead, Walker is battling to hold onto power in a state bitterly divided by his brand of austerity politics.
It’s an election many consider a harbinger of November’s faceoff between President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Indeed, the economic arguments between Walker and his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, are certainly similar to the skirmishes now erupting routinely between the Obama and Romney campaigns.
“I have a plan to get this state going and create jobs,” Barrett told Milwaukee’s CBS affiliate on Monday amid 11th-hour polls that suggest he’s now in a neck-and-neck race against the governor.
“His philosophy is: ‘Let’s give the corporations money’ … but his reforms aren’t working.”
Walker, meantime, insisted he will prevail on Tuesday.
“I’m not letting up until eight o’clock tomorrow night; there’s a lot of voters to get to, a lot of people to get the message out to,” he said.
The Wisconsin showdown has also served as yet another vivid illustration of the extreme polarization of the American electorate, with the state’s voters split almost perfectly down the middle over their love – or loathing – of Walker’s cost-cutting policies.
Shortly after Walker’s election in November 2010, he landed himself in hot water for his plans to strip collective-bargaining rights from most public employee unions as well as rolling back tax credits and other benefits for the poor in an effort to slash the state budget.
The proposed measures infuriated Democrats and unions, who viewed them as an assault on organized labour that reflected an emerging trend across the country.
Indeed, U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics suggest the rate of American union membership fell to a record low in 2011, with collective-bargaining units representing only 6.9 per cent of employees in non-government jobs. That’s down from 7.2 per cent in 2009.
In the wake of Walker’s austerity measures, nearly a million signatures were amassed on petitions against him, ultimately forcing the recall election. Tens of thousands of people turned out to protest outside the state legislative buildings in Madison, but the bill became law nonetheless.
Yet the law’s passage hardly eased Walker’s woes. His job now on the line, polls suggest the race has tightened against Barrett, the Democrat he defeated in the November 2010 mid-term elections.
And even if Walker survives the battle, there are others on the recall ballot whose fortunes could have a significant impact on Wisconsin politics in the months ahead. Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is squaring off against Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, and four Republican state senate seats are also up for grabs.
If Democrats win even one of those seats, they’ll have a majority in the Senate for the first time since 2010 – and the power to rein in Walker’s legislative agenda.
With so much at stake, many have wondered – including Walker himself – why Obama steered clear of campaigning with Barrett in Wisconsin.
“It’s kind of confusing, I think, to voters here, because they wonder: ‘Why won’t you come in?'” Walker said on Fox News, pointing out that Obama recently campaigned in the nearby states of Illinois and Minnesota but skipped Wisconsin.
“Two years ago, the same person I’m running against now was my opponent back then and (Obama) came in and campaigned for the mayor at that point. I think it’s a sign there’s real concern.”
Barry Burden, political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it’s not surprising Obama hasn’t been front and centre in Wisconsin given Barrett’s uphill battle against Walker. The governor has vastly outspent the mayor, with the majority of the cash coming from wealthy out-of-state donors.
“Most people believe that because Barrett has been trailing in the polls throughout the race, the White House didn’t want to become attached to a losing campaign,” he said.
David Axelrod, a top Obama strategist, has scoffed at suggestions Obama has avoided Wisconsin, insisting the president is “well-represented” in the state by the likes of former president Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The Democrats also have “an army of lawyers there ready to protect the vote on Tuesday,” Axelrod said over the weekend.
Obama is popular in Wisconsin, according to a recent Marquette University poll. The president enjoys a 52 per cent approval rating in the state, and leads Mitt Romney 51-43 among likely voters.
The state hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1984, leading to suggestions that Obama’s re-election team feels it can afford to lose the recall vote.
But there are other national implications at stake apart from the recall vote’s impact on the presidential election, said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Walker is part of a cohort of governors elected in November 2010 with the strong support of the Tea Party. South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Ohio’s John Kasich are among the club members, Burden said.
“They’re a bit of a team, they stay in touch, they provide each other with information on what works and doesn’t work in their states in terms of economic policy, in particular,” he said.
“If Walker is successful, it will suggest to those other governors in the cohort that they should stay the course, and continue doing what they’re doing.”
In other words, Burden said, those governors might feel emboldened to go after public sector unions in their states too.
Indeed, in a recent interview on CNN, Haley had this to say: “There’s a reason South Carolina’s the new ‘it’ state. It’s because we’re a union-buster.”