What to Expect in the Recall Election . . . And What to Hope For

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

May 21, 2012

The June 5 recall election for governor is a toss-up and easily could go either way. Wisconsin’s electorate looks to be divided 50-50. I’ve never seen our state so polarized. An undeniable reason for that, of course, is that Governor Scott Walker is the state’s most polarizing political figure in living memory. People either love him or hate him.

It’s easy to see how Walker gets 46% or 47% of the vote. He’d probably get that even if he’s indicted before the election. He has an incredibly faithful following, and his backers will move heaven and earth to keep him in office. How he gets to 50% is the question.

It’s equally easy to see how Tom Barrett gets 46% or 47%. And equally hard to see how he reaches 50%.

Walker won with 52% of the vote in 2010, and he’s unquestionably alienated some of the people who voted for him the first time. Even some who agree with what he’s done don’t care for how he did it. Then there’s the John Doe investigation that’s already led to criminal charges against several close aides and associates, and the fact that he’s had to set up a criminal defense fund.

What haunts Walker most is his promise to create 250,000 new jobs. We actually lost jobs in the 12 months after his policies were put in place, and Wisconsin is dead last in the nation in job creation.

The Republicans are one-trick ponies when it comes to the economy, and their one trick doesn’t work. Isn't working in Wisconsin. Hasn’t worked anywhere. Call it what you will…trickle down economics, supply side theory, Robin Hood in reverse. It’s been tried again and again for the past 30 years. All it’s done is make the rich a lot richer, the poor even poorer, and the middle class an endangered species.

Our country grew together in the 30 years after World War II, with every income class growing in real terms (adjusting income for inflation). Then we grew apart in the three decades that followed, with every income class but the top 10% either treading water or sinking, a phenomenon that coincided with trickle down becoming the economic law of the land.

A wrecked economy marked by vanishing jobs and growing income disparity has been met with even more of what caused the wreckage in the first place. More tax cuts for the wealthy. More deregulation. Predictably the economy continues to sputter, worse here in Wisconsin than anywhere. And as a country we continue to grow apart, with 93% of income growth going to the wealthiest 1% of Americans in 2010.

For their part, the Democrats find themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma. They still see themselves as working-class champions, but they’ve lost the rural working poor who now faithfully vote Republican. In the 2010 election for governor, Walker carried eight of the 10 counties with the lowest per capita income. Overall, he won by a 13-percentage-point, 8,400-vote margin out of about 66,500 votes in Wisconsin’s 10 poorest counties

If the Democrats do more than pay lip service to these workers’ plight, they alienate their biggest campaign donors who, truth be told, have little in common with people living in counties like Forest, Waushara, Clark, Rusk, Taylor or Juneau. But if they don’t take concrete steps to once again become the party of the poor, it’s darn hard to see how they cobble together a governing majority.

For years, unions were the backbone of the Democratic Party. But private-sector unions have been decimated, and now public-sector unions are under assault. In a state of 5 million people, there are only something like 130,000 unionized public employees in Wisconsin and the ability of their unions to be a political force has been seriously undermined.

Public workers aren’t politically monolithic, but even if they were there are not enough of them to carry the Democrats. Not even close. And besides, the Democrats’ loyalty to the public employee unions has more than a little to do with the Republicans being able to steal away the rural working poor.

Add in their reliance on the 1% for donations (it’s a well-kept secret, but Wisconsin Democrats get $6 from corporate interests for every dollar from labor unions), leaving them unable to meaningfully distinguish themselves from the Republicans when it comes to serving the master, and the Democrats have a problem that will persist well after June 5.

The best thing the Democrats have going for them is the Republicans. And vice-versa.

The stakes are incredibly high in this recall election. Still, the question with the biggest bearing on our future is not which side will win. It’s when – or whether – one party that is worth a damn will reemerge.


WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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