After a 16-month long fight, an astonishing $63.5 million spent, and a people’s uprising that attracted international attention and laid the groundwork for a movement that will last for years to come, Governor Scott Walker will keep his seat after Tuesday’s recall election, winning 53-46 over challenger Tom Barrett. Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch also survived her recall challenge.
In the early hours of the morning, word came from Southeastern Wisconsin that former state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, beat incumbent Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, with 36,255 votes to Wanggaard’s 35,476 votes, according to unofficial results with all precincts reporting. Combined with two other successful Senate recalls in August of 2011, this win means Democrats flipped the Senate from Republican control and put a halt to the Walker agenda.
A Historic Struggle Over Tremendous Odds
Walker was voted into office in 2010 with a promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term — which was appealing to residents of a state suffering from the economic downturn. During the campaign, Walker indicated that he would ask public sector employees to pay more into their health care and pensions, but never suggested that he would attack their right to collectively bargain, which public workers in Wisconsin have had for fifty years.
Walker first announced his plans to roll back collective bargaining rights on February 11, 2011 and anticipated the fight would be over in less than a week. Walker announced his “Budget Repair Bill” (Act 10) on a Friday and planned a vote the following Wednesday, leaving almost no time for public debate or deliberation. He even scheduled a bill signing at the end of the week.
Things did not go according to plan. Students, firefighters, and many others occupied the capitol for 18 days. Hundreds of thousands of people marched on the Capitol after 14 Senate Democrats delayed the vote by exiting the state. When the vote was eventually lost in March of 2011, many protesters vowed to recall Walker.
The task was not a small one. Wisconsin’s recall law, which had never been used in a statewide election since it was added to the state constitution in 1926, first required that protesters wait a year before initiating a recall. Next, it required that advocates gather signatures equivalent to 25 percent of ballots cast in the last election — which would require 540,000 signatures to trigger a Walker recall — one of the highest recall thresholds in the nation (and much greater than the 12 percent required in California). But starting in November 2011, 30,000 volunteers braved a cold Wisconsin winter and collected over 930,000 signatures in 60 days, greatly exceeding expectations.
At that point, another problem with the process quickly emerged. A campaign finance loophole allows a politician facing recall to accept unlimited campaign donations. This meant Walker could receive checks for $100,000, $250,000, and $500,000 — for a total of $30.5 million — while his opponents engaged in a Democratic primary had to abide by a $10,000 contribution cap. No opponent could overcome this astonishing financial advantage. Finally, after the Democratic primary on May 8, there were only four weeks for the winner to raise money, cut ads and campaign around the state.
Democrats Unable to Match Avalanche of Outside Money
Around $63.5 million was spent in the election, according to most recent reports. $45 million of that $63.5 million — more than 70 percent — came from Walker’s campaign and supporters. Because of the loophole in Wisconsin campaign finance law, Walker out-raised Barrett 7.5 to 1 ($30.5 million to $4 million at last count). Two-thirds of Walker’s money came from out-of-state, versus only one-fourth of Barrett’s money coming from outside Wisconsin.
According to Mike McCabe of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in politics, “Money doesn’t talk, it screams. And that is what we saw in this election.”
Wisconsin’s recall election was widely viewed as a preview of November’s presidential election and as a referendum on the strength and power of unions.
But for many observers, the key question was whether grassroots gumption was enough to win in a post-Citizens United world. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made it even easier for outside special interests to flood a state with money. While Walker had a significant financial advantage with his own campaign funds, he received additional help from secretive special interests.
Because of the money spent to support Walker, for months Wisconsin residents have heard a consistent drumbeat of ads claiming that Walker’s reforms have created new jobs and benefitted the state. The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, for example, spent more than $10 million on ads and bus tours since November to push the message that “It’s Working!” This was more than twice the amount of money Barrett even raised. Walker received additional support from groups like the Republican Governors Association, which spent $10 million beating up Walker’s opponents.
Because of the disparity in spending between Republicans and Democrats, Wisconsinites have not heard a consistent counter-message about how Wisconsin was dead last in job growth among the 50 states, or about how Walker’s cuts to schools might affect education quality, or more about the ongoing “John Doe” criminal investigation into the actions of Walker’s former staff and associates during his time as Milwaukee County Executive. While labor spent big for Barrett, the estimated $20 million spent by unions was easily matched by RGA and AFP alone. Barrett received very little support from the Democratic National Committee or President Obama. Obama stayed out of the race, although he tweeted his support for Barrett the day before the election — an act that some found offensive in its insignificance.
Still, although Walker originally expected the entire fight to be done in less than a week, Wisconsin residents rose up, like citizens in countries around the world, and inspired a much broader discussion about austerity politics in the land of plenty, the lack of shared sacrifice, and how to create a fairer economy that works for all. In the process, they raised awareness of the role of right-wing institutions like the American Legislative Exchange Council that facilitated Walker’s attacks on working people, and laid the groundwork for the victory over anti-union measures in Ohio, and for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
All players in the Wisconsin recall fight know that this battle will continue long after June 5.
Mary Bottari contributed to this article