Wisconsin recall: Why stakes for Obama are lower than you think

If the Wisconsin recall effort fails against Gov. Scott Walker, Obama will be seen as one of the losers. The GOP will be energized to wrench Wisconsin from the Democrats, but November is five months away.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
People wait in line for voting to open Tuesday, June 5, in Milwaukee. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is taking on Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in a recall election.

If Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin survives Tuesday’s recall election, President Obama will face repercussions – but not as much as some people might think.

The national news media are riveted by the contest, and that will magnify the result. A loss for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic challenger, will be seen as a blow to Mr. Obama and his prospects for November. After all, Wisconsin is a battleground state. A win for Mayor Barrett, the underdog, will be seen as a significant boost to Obama, on the heels of bad economic news.

But the impact will fade fast, political observers say.

“It’s June,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Yes, a victory by Walker will give Republicans a burst of energy, but will it last five months? No way.”

Still, there will be one lasting implication: A Walker victory will force the Obama campaign to expend resources – time, money, volunteer effort – that it might otherwise not have had to. And those are resources that will be taken from campaign efforts in other states.

Obama won Wisconsin big in 2008 – by 14 percentage points. As of now, outside observers see Wisconsin as leaning Democratic, so while it’s not a sure thing for Obama, it’s a state he should win this November.

As of April, unemployment there was at 6.7 percent, well below the national average (8.1 percent in April). But with a Walker victory on Tuesday, Republicans will see an opening to go after Obama on friendly territory. For the president, Wisconsin is a must-win.

In another wrinkle, the Obama campaign released a map to its supporters Monday showing the presidential battleground states, and listed Wisconsin as a tossup – not leaning Democratic. That sends another signal to Republicans that Wisconsin is fertile territory for Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee.

“That’s a mistake,” says Mr. Sabato.

Tuesday’s recall vote also represents a test for the clout of organized labor, long seen as waning. But as a dry run for November, the test is imperfect. Some Wisconsin voters are weary of the year-plus of political turmoil the state has endured since Walker’s bold move to strip unions of most collective bargaining rights.

And it’s not a sure thing that all Obama voters will support Barrett. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin cites the state’s tradition of ticket-splitters. According to media reports, some Wisconsinites will vote for Walker simply as a protest against the recall process, not because they necessarily like the governor’s policies.

"The recall should only be used when there's an egregious action" by an elected official, David Riese, a retired physician, told USA Today in a story out of Monroe, Wis.

Recalls of governors are extremely rare in American politics. Walker is only the third in US history to face this sort of challenge – and if he survives, he will be the first to do so. That alone will give him a certain rock-star status in GOP circles, following the maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

That’s not exactly what Wisconsin Democrats envisioned when they gathered signatures to set up the Tuesday ballot. But national Democrats, including Obama, were never enamored of the Badger State’s recall gambit. The timing isn’t ideal. College students, a key element of Democratic get-out-the-vote activity, are off for summer break.

Obama, quite pointedly, chose not to campaign for Barrett, likely because he didn’t want to associate himself with a campaign that may well lose. On Monday afternoon, the president finally came through with a pro-forma endorsement – delivered via Twitter.

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