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.

Morry Gash/AP
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.

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.

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.

Another important factor was Walker’s own performance in office, where a slight improvement in his margin of victory – a 7-point victory over Barrett yesterday compared to a 5.8-point margin in 2010 – suggests he won over some Wisconsinites for a series of tough decisions designed to help fix, or at least improve, deep-seated fiscal problems in the Badger State.

But it was the tea party that provided Walker with a big final push against an energized Democratic base, which had collected about 1 million signatures to recall Walker.

In fact, some 36 percent of those who voted in Tuesday’s recall election said they were tea party supporters, and they voted for Walker at a rate of over 90 percent. (Meanwhile, 34 percent of voters said they opposed the tea party, voting by a similar margin for Barrett.)

“This is a good indication that there’s a ground game, though not necessarily a conventional ground game,” says University of Wisconsin pollster Charles Franklin. “But one would have to guess that out of the folks who did the phone banking for the GOP, a good chunk” were tea party members.

'Completely fired up'

With Walker’s victory, Wisconsin becomes the latest tea party-powered victory in the past few months, following Mr. Mourdock's in Indiana, and those by two tea party candidates, in Nevada and Texas, who challenged GOP establishment figures in Senate runoffs.

Walker’s win “was as good as if not better than when Scott Brown [won] in January 2010,” writes Cornell University law professor William Jacobson, a conservative blogger, referring to the race in which national tea party money helped turn the US Senate seat long held by the late Ted Kennedy to Mr. Brown, a Republican, in one of the country’s most liberal states.

“This election will signal to the Republicans [the importance of] the ground game issue,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. “Republicans were just really advantaged both in the fundraising war, but also in phone calls and door-knocking. They’re completely fired up.”

But Mr. Burden also notes that Walker’s “solidification of his grasp of the state was much bigger than the tea party coalition and appealed to the broader swath of the public.”

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