The biggest election before November took place last week in Wisconsin – and it didn’t go the Democrats way.
Incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker had polarised the state by taking on public sector labour unions, rolling back their collective bargaining rights as part of an effort to close a $3 billion budget gap after he took office.
In doing so, he provoked a confrontation with big labour and progressive protestors, who pronounced the move a “war on workers.” The state capital was swarmed with demonstrators and accompanying drum circles for weeks.
When his controversial bills passed narrowly along party lines, a new effort began to recall Governor Walker – an extraordinary step usually reserved for indicted officials.
More than a million Wisconsinites signed the recall petition, while 46 per cent of state residents said they “strongly disapproved” of his conduct in office.
And so the stage was set for the June 5th recall, a local race with national implications, which Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz pronounced a “test run” for November.
In a sign of things to come across the country, campaign money started swamping the state, pitting Big Business against Big Labour, the power of donations versus get-out-the-vote ground game. The final price tag is expected to exceed $70 million, a record for a recall election.
Predictably, the political ads that aired were overwhelmingly negative – people don’t funnel unrestricted sums of money to run positive spots. It’s all slash and burn, divide and conquer.
But perhaps most striking in the money game was the disparity between Mr Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Mr Walker raised more than $34 million, two-thirds of it coming from out of state. Barrett raised a measly $4 million, with comparatively little coming from national donors.
The White House decided to essentially sit out the campaign, deploying Bill Clinton to a campaign rally but leaving President Obama’s support to a 140-character Tweet dispatched days before the election. They apparently did not want to risk the prestige of the presidency on a risky recall election in a state that Obama needs to win this fall.
That might have been a wise decision.
In the end, the incumbent was returned with even more votes than he was initially elected in 2010, amid record turnout. He won middle class voters and even one-third of union households, a dynamic which Democratic strategist Paul Begala memorably described as “a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.”
Some opponents were seen crying in the streets, including one man who told CNN cameras that “democracy died tonight in America.”
Political passions may be over-heated, but the policy implications for Walker’s win are in fact huge.
States across the nation are wrestling with multi-billion budget deficits, municipalities are in danger of declaring bankruptcy largely because of mammoth pension obligations to retired public sector workers.
For example, in the City of San Jose, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, pension costs have more than tripled over the last decade alone to a quarter of a billion dollars, or a quarter of the city’s annual budget.
The status quo is simply unsustainable. And in a comparatively low-profile local election this past Tuesday, voters decided to opt for pension reform by an overwhelming and bipartisan 70% margin. That measure wasn’t pushed by a conservative ideologue but a Democratic mayor.
Governors and mayors across the country will look at these votes and decide that they can take on powerful public sector unions and not just survive but possibly be rewarded for their political courage.
There is a pragmatic rather than partisan reason for this plan of action – states and cities cannot simply tax or cut their way out of their growing budget deficits.
The problem is structural: sweetheart deals made with unions decades ago as a way of suing for peace. But now, with the retirement of the baby boom generation, the bill is coming due and too many cities are paying more for retired workers than people actually on the job.
For Democrats, these election results should be a major wake-up call.
Wisconsin is still expected to vote Democratic in the fall – President Obama won the state by 14-points in 2008, and the last time it went Republican was durnig President Reagan’s 49-state re-election romp.
But the Democratic Party is tied to labour unions as much as the Republican Party is disproportionately influenced by the religious right, and there are signs that swing voters see public sector unions as just another special interest out to enrich themselves at tax-payer expense while the still economy struggles.
The political winds are shifting and the Obama administration will need to develop their own plan for pension reform even as they try to put the Republicans’ penchant for polarization on trial.
The fact that Big Labour can lose in Wisconsin is just the latest sign that we are in for an ugly, expensive, unpredictable street-fight in the fall.