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Did tea party put Scott Walker over the top in Wisconsin recall?

The tea party movement flexed its muscle in Wisconsin, as Gov. Scott Walker handily won a recall vote on Tuesday. Thirty-six percent of voters said they support the movement – and almost all went for Walker.

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / June 6, 2012

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker reacts at his victory party on Tuesday night, in Waukesha, Wis. Walker defeated Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in a special recall election.

Morry Gash/AP

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Disappointed progressives blame an avalanche of campaign cash from outside Wisconsin for their failed bid to recall tea party favorite Gov. Scott Walker (R), whose controversial gambit to shrink the influence of the public-sector unions became a national cause célèbre for both the right and the left last year.

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In a way, those critics are spot on: Wisconsin was, in fact, flooded with record amounts of donations that helped Mr. Walker defeat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), with some of that outside cash coming from wealthy industrialists and financiers.

But there’s a second part to how Walker won. Walker’s ground game played a big role in pulling off a win, as he became the first governor in US history to survive a recall election. And like the recent GOP primary victory of Richard Mourdock over veteran US Sen. Dick Lugar in nearby Indiana, that ground game is being pitched by cadres of grass-roots activists who identify to a large extent with the leaderless tea party movement.

“While Occupiers and union protesters got the ink, the tea party dropped the placards and picked up clipboards, phones and got out the vote,” writes former tea party activist Dana Loesch, a conservative talk show host, on Breitbart.com. Adds former US Education Secretary Bill Bennett, writing on CNN.com: “The untold story of the Wisconsin saga may be the resurgence of the tea party.”

A quiet but potent force

As Mr. Bennett suggests, the tea party didn’t get mentioned much in this election. That was partly due to a self-imposed quietude after the brand was tarnished in the congressional debt battles of 2011. But it was also true that the role of the tea party was overshadowed by the stakes for public-sector unions, for whom the defeat at the polls may become a Waterloo moment – a stunning abdication of bargaining rights in the state where public-sector unions were born in 1959.

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