Wisconsin: Did Walker Wars Plant the Seeds of Dem Defeat?

State campaign ground games drastically different thanks to recall efforts.

Here in Wisconsin, we see ourselves as more than a state in play. When it comes to politics, we are not merely a “toss up” or metaphorical battleground state. We are an actual battleground.

Wisconsin has become the Bleeding Kansas of our political civil war. The open question is whether we are now the Ardennes Forest of Obama’s last gasp defense of the Progressive Millennium.

Following Governor Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reforms in early 2011, our capitol has been occupied by mobs resembling refugees of the Sixties channeling the ghosts of the Wobblies. We have seen legislators fleeing the state and justices of our state supreme court scuffling in their offices. We have been subjected to a seemingly endless series of recall elections. Our governor’s reforms are entangled in the ministrations of judges from Madison - a polity roughly equivalent to Berkeley without the funk of the San Francisco Bay. Think Bulgaria and not Greece.

There is a conceit among the left here. They see Wisconsin as the natural home of progressivism and the righteous legacy of Fighting Bob LaFollette. The state was an historic leader in extending collective bargaining to public employment. The University of Wisconsin has long been one of the key intellectual homes of the officious intermeddler, and the city of Milwaukee had a socialist mayor - we’re talking admitted socialists running under the party label - as recently as 1960. Today, you can’t find that kind of thing outside Vermont.

So you can imagine the horror - the reflexive disgust - with which our friends on the left regard the prospect that we are about to become known as the land of Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. It is not simply that Walker and Ryan are conservatives, but that that they are conservatives who aim directly at what the left thought was settled. Collective bargaining, Walker argues, is not the apex of economic justice. Our sclerotic system of entitlements, Ryan explains, cannot be maintained. For the left here, the two represent the very real possibility that Wisconsin is about to have an outsized role in killing what it played a disproportionate role in starting.  Both must be destroyed.

Wisconsin progressives have, over the past eighteen months, gathered all of their resources and enlisted unprecedented levels of national support to drive a stake in the heart of this threat. So far, they have lost. Walker defeated the recall by a margin greater than that by which he was elected in 2010.  He lost control of the Wisconsin Senate only because state recall laws allowed the Democrats to cherry pick vulnerable Republicans. No one doubts that the state senate will return to Republican control next week.

Could Wisconsin progressives lose again? Here are the facts. A Republican presidential candidate has not carried Wisconsin since 1984. Barack Obama defeated John McCain by fourteen points. This is not supposed to be a state that the Democrats have to worry about.

But, still, while the state has been faithfully blue in presidential elections, the margins of victory for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 were razor thin.

And the polls are all over the place. Until just recently, a couple of polls had Obama up by five or so, but all other polls in the past two weeks have the race within two points. Wednesday, the Marquette University Law School poll, a survey that was accurate (but not exclusively so) on the recall, turned statistically schizophrenic. A month ago, it had Obama up by double digits. Two weeks ago, it was even. On Halloween, Obama was up by eight (although the margin among those that say they are both likely to vote and politically engaged is two points.) The Marquette poll even purports to find – over two weeks - a five-point swing on the Governor’s job approval. This suggests either an uncommonly fickle electorate or one that is extremely hard to capture.

A similar pattern is found in polling of the Senate race between former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and Democratic Congressman Tammy Baldwin. A couple of polls have Baldwin up by four or so; all others report the race as a statistical draw. Marquette, again, yo-yos.

The intangibles are close. On the one hand, the state’s recently enacted voter identification law has been enjoined by local courts in Madison. For a state bordering Illinois, this may be significant. The polls suggest that Republicans are far more enthusiastic. But Democratic turnout is less concerned with enthusiasm than efficiency.

Then there is the recent unpleasantness. Having struck at the beast and survived, conservatives are energized. Romney, like McCain, was not their nominee of choice. Unlike McCain, he has somehow managed – at least here – to make them forget it. During the recalls, Democrats were convinced that they would win on the ground. But Republicans matched their turnout efforts. This is one place where the Republican ground game, honed over our summers of recall, may be better than the Democrats’.

My own sense is that I see little Democratic activity like what we saw with the failed recalls. I don’t see the Democratic signs on freeway over passes like I did in 2008 and during the recalls. But, locally, Mitt Romney is not Scott Walker and even our high turnout recall did not quite reach presidential levels. If Romney wins Wisconsin, it will be by the slightest of a nudge.

How likely is a Romney win? It is clear that both campaigns seem to regard Wisconsin as interesting but not Ohio. If you made me bet today, I’d predict narrow wins for Obama and Thompson in Wisconsin. My sense of the national political scene is that, if Romney wins Wisconsin, it will not be a close national election. But it is not implausible that Wisconsin will be the essential part of Obama’s Midwestern firewall that does not hold. If that happens, the seeds may have been planted by the Walker wars.

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