For a preview of the November presidential election, look no further than the dogfight over the governorship of Wisconsin as it heads to a tooth-and-claw climax June 5.
The recall election of Gov. Scott Walker stems from Wisconsin's own political history in the 16 months since voters here gave him and fellow Republican lawmakers a lock on the statehouse – and carte blanche to set a sort of "austerity plan" for the state. But the themes – and the flood of money from outside interests – that define this gubernatorial election mirror those of the 2012 presidential race so closely that many political analysts see the Wisconsin contest as a test drive for the national general election five months hence.
In both contests there's the dominant issue of jobs – and which candidate has the better recipe for creating more of them. There's the matter of government overspending and how best to rein it in. And there's the debate over whether government's primary role is to protect struggling middle-class workers from exploitation or, rather, to get out of the way of enterprising capitalists so that the virtuous cycle of wealth accumulation, reinvestment, and economic expansion can proceed unimpeded.
The alliances are similar, too. In Governor Walker's corner, as in presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's, are conservative "super political-action committees" and wealthy business interests driven by a renewed determination to slash government, cut taxes, reduce regulation, and, not least of all, clip the political and economic power of labor unions.
In challenger Tom Barrett's corner, as in President Obama's, are Big Labor and, the Democrats hope, a large share of the "99 percent" who believe the wealthy don't pay enough taxes, want government to safeguard the environment and the needy, and see investment in the health and education of most of the populace as a benefit, not a drain.
"Walker is seen as standing for a more aggressive brand of conservatism at the state level," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program in Washington. If recall voters in Wisconsin elect to keep him, "then that will say something pretty significant about the mood of the people and their receptivity to the core messages of the two political parties."
The outcome in Wisconsin is expected to be a psychological boost to the winning side heading into November, especially because this is a fickle swing state. Wisconsin voted big for Mr. Obama in 2008, then shifted its allegiance to the Republicans and Walker, rejecting longtime US Sen. Russell Feingold (D) for good measure.
"The Wisconsin election is unquestionably the second most important election in the United States in 2012" next to November, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The making of a lightning rod
Walker would rather not be going through this ordeal at all, just 16 months after taking office. He became a lightning rod last year when, with the help of the Republican-majority state legislature, he pushed through an agenda that sought to close Wisconsin's budget deficit of $3 billion (over two years) in part by extracting concessions from most of the unionized government workers – including stripping them of their most sacred right of collective bargaining.
Even as Democrats railed against what they said was union busting in the guise of sensible economic policy, conservative groups hailed the new governor as a role model for other Republican governors to emulate.
Republicans with national stature have been lining up to endorse Walker: Mr. Romney in April declared him a "hero"; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have joined Walker on the campaign trail; and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus described the governor as the "anti-Barack Obama," predicting that his reelection will help the GOP "pounce on the president and other Democrats on the ballot with him in November."
"Scott Walker has a very clear vision [of] where the state should go, and Republicans can see that. Nationally, he is an attractive image for the party," says Arnold Shober, a professor of government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "One complaint about Mitt Romney is who knows what he thinks? That is not the case with Scott Walker. The Republican Party is hungering for individual standard-bearers for new ideas."
National Democrats appear less engaged in the battle on behalf of Mr. Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, who in early May won the right to take on Walker in the recall. Barrett ran against Walker for the governorship in 2010, losing 46.5 percent to 52.3 percent.
At time of writing, Obama had yet to comment on the race, and the Wisconsin Democratic Party has asked for – but not received – $500,000 from the Democratic National Committee to help with field operations. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, however, sent a fundraising e-mail Wednesday to millions of party supporters seeking solicitations on Barrett's behalf.
"We will go ahead with what we have," says Phil Walzak, communications director for the Barrett campaign, adding that "the campaign welcomes the investment" of the national party. To date, Barrett's greatest support is from labor unions, which have the most to lose if recall voters endorse Walker's agenda June 5, says Brooking's Mr. Galston.
A Walker win is looking more likely. The governor has pulled ahead 50 percent to 44 percent, according to a poll of likely voters released May 16 by Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.
To many Wisconsin voters, the election can't end soon enough. The war between the unions and Walker has lasted a year – beginning with the showdown at the State Capitol in Madison over the budget – and a certain amount of fatigue has set in. People are bombarded by media ads and direct mail, and some are tired of thinking and hearing about it.
"He's in there fair and square. Everything else is a distraction" to state business, he says. "And [the recall] looks bad on the state."
All about jobs?
A sluggish economy and job stagnation usually do not bode well for an incumbent officeholder – whether Republican or Democrat. To that end, Wisconsin Democrats have sought, with some success, to steer the conversation away from union rights and toward jobs.
During his 2010 campaign, Walker said his economic blueprint would bring 250,000 new jobs to Wisconsin during his first term. So far the numbers are not working in his favor. Only 5,900 private-sector jobs have been created since Walker took office, and the public sector statewide shrank by 17,800 jobs between March 2011 and March 2012, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worse for the governor, Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state between last spring and this spring, the BLS numbers show.
Walker is brushing off those reports, instead touting the falling unemployment rate. Moreover, he has offered competing jobs figures from quarterly census data that the US government uses to revise the monthly BLS survey. Those numbers show 23,321 in job gains from December 2010 to December 2011, but the BLS had neither reviewed nor verified them.
Still, Walker argues that a healthier economy and job growth will ultimately be the result of less government spending and less clout for public-employee labor unions. He has a receptive audience in many Republicans nationally, and some suggest that if he prevails in the recall, it could give Romney confidence to highlight his own campaign promise to reduce federal spending to 20 percent of gross domestic product (down from 24.1 percent) by the end of his first term as president.
"If Scott Walker can turn jobs around, you'll see Romney trying to say the federal government can adopt some of those [Wisconsin] reforms nationally," says Lawrence University's Mr. Shober. "Romney has been hesitant to get into that fight, but he's seeing that Republicans are very excited about it. He could say that maybe it's time to make the federal government less friendly to labor unions, but with an economic argument behind it."
Barrett has his own problems with the jobs issue. He presides over a city where the jobless rate is higher than the state average – a point Walker repeats often.
But the Barrett camp counters that Walker was the Milwaukee County executive before he was governor, and so shares responsibility for that state of affairs. The governor has "no credibility" on the jobs issue, adds Mr. Walzak of the Barrett campaign.
The recall election may well be a referendum on jobs, but a Walker loss in June would not necessarily mean Wisconsin voters will turn around in November and endorse the economic approach of Mr. Obama, marked by stimulus spending, health-care overhaul, tax cuts for the middle class, and, if he could get Congress to go along, tax hikes for the wealthy. Wisconsin voters, after all, take pride in their pragmatic, independent streak – owing no particular allegiance to one party or ideology but inclined to pull the lever to make a statement or send a message.
"The people of Wisconsin may be disappointed with Governor Walker's record on job generation, and they also might be disappointed with President Obama's record on job generation," says Mr. Galston of the Brookings Institution. "It's not a contradiction."
A magnet for the big money
It's fair to say that Wisconsin residents have never seen the likes of the money pouring into their state from those who see the recall election as a national proving ground.
"It feels more like an arms race than anything else," says Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which tracks campaign spending nationwide. "This is the equivalent of a special election, which is fairly rare, but here it is in a competitive state that could determine the presidential race. Both of those things are coming together to create a perfect storm of campaign financing."
As of early May, some $80 million had been spent on the recall effort, which targets the Republican lieutenant governor and four GOP state senators, as well as Walker. The two sides matched each other almost dollar for dollar, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group in Madison that tracks campaign spending.
Of that very grand total, about 57 percent of donations greater than $100 came from out-of-state donors, the group reports. The Republican Governors Association has spent $5 million for Walker and company. The Democratic Governors Association has contributed $3 million for Barrett and colleagues, and another $2 million came from We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of state and national labor unions.
Walker has traveled the country to solicit donations, and his campaign raised $30 million from January 2011 to May 2012, the Democracy Campaign reports. He has become something of a cause célèbre in conservative circles. Oil billionaire David Koch, who founded the super PAC Americans for Prosperity, told the Palm Beach Post in February that Walker's fight with public unions "is critically important" on a national scale. "If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power," Mr. Koch is quoted as saying.
Anti-union fervor is a big motivator for those giving and spending on Walker's behalf, says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Walker's donors "despise unions and want to make sure the recall is not seen as a referendum that affirms worker rights to unionize," he says.
But there's antipathy toward Walker as well – and it's closer to home. Britt Larson of Racine, a self-employed accountant, says only the governor is responsible for the divisiveness in the state.
"He's Mr. No Compromise. That's not the way you run a business, and that's not the way you run a state," Mr. Larson says. "Politics are worse now than they were before he got here."
Labor unions, too, are eager to oust Walker at all costs, lest his anti-union tactics spread beyond Wisconsin. Within the state, union foot soldiers are canvassing neighborhoods and targeting registered voters who stayed home during the 2010 gubernatorial election. Walker's war chest is now 10 times that of Barrett's, and their aim is to close the money gap with manpower.
"We can't win the money battle, so if it's about more ads, we'll lose," says Mike Lipp, former president of Madison Teachers Inc., a union representing 2,700 public school teachers. "Millionaires have the same vote as a poor person, so the key is to get out there and vote. We're going to do it grass-roots."