Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer and John McCormack a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.
Forty-nine minutes after the polls closed in Wisconsin on June 5, Scott Walker heard the news: He was the first governor to have been elected twice in one term. Exit polls broadcast by the media had suggested a dead heat with challenger Tom Barrett. "In your mind, you get yourself psyched up for a long night," Walker recalled in an interview with The Weekly Standard. But less than an hour later, R.J. Johnson, Walker's top strategist, gave him a hug and told Walker and his wife that NBC had called the race. "I looked at Tonette and said, 'Thank God it's over.' "
Walker's wife wasn't relieved — yet. "That can't be," she said repeatedly in disbelief before being convinced when someone switched the channel to confirm the news.
Walker's victory brought to an end a rancorous struggle over the power of public employee unions that had consumed the state for 16 months and made him a leading spokesman of conservative reformers. In his victory speech, Walker hailed the results as a vindication of courageous political leadership. He then urged Wisconsinites to heed the better angels of their nature, as he announced a bipartisan bratwurst and beer summit with the state legislature at the governor's mansion.
But so raw were emotions that even in victory the mere mention of Barrett drew loud boos from some in the crowd. "No, no, no, no," Walker said, chastening them. "The election is over. It's time to move Wisconsin forward." Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, encountered even stronger emotions at his Election Night party, where he was slapped in the face by one of his supporters for conceding too quickly.
When all the votes were finally counted, Walker had beaten Barrett 53 percent to 46 percent — a one-point improvement on his margin of victory over Barrett during the historic Republican wave in 2010. If Walker had received the same number of votes that he did in 2010, he would have lost the recall. Barrett increased his 2010 haul by 158,000 votes, but Walker gained an additional 206,000. He couldn't have hoped for a more decisive victory.
"It's still pretty surreal," he said the day after the election. "I'm glad I can get back to work."
The recall ended up being largely a referendum on Walker's policy of balancing the budget by curbing the power of government unions, despite Barrett's best efforts to change the subject. To the extent that Barrett's campaign had a focus, it was an ongoing investigation of former Walker aides accused of engaging in political activities on public time. Nine out of 10 voters who favored the law limiting collective bargaining for public employees voted for Walker, 9 out of 10 who opposed the changes voted for Barrett, according to exit polling.
The result was far from inevitable. A year ago Barrett probably would have won a referendum on Walker's reforms. In March 2011, only two months into Walker's term, public opinion had turned sharply against the governor and his policies. Walker's approval rating dropped to the 40s, and polls showed Barrett beating Walker in a rematch. Even as Democratic Wisconsin state senators entered their third week of hiding in Illinois to block a vote on Walker's budget bill, with protesters occupying the capitol building, a Rasmussen poll showed voters supported Democrats over Walker 52 to 44 percent. Walker's policy was even more unpopular: Voters opposed the attempt to "weaken the collective bargaining rights of state employees" 57 percent to 39 percent, according to Rasmussen.
Fast-forward to late May 2012, and the numbers had flipped. Voters favored "limiting collective bargaining for most public employees" 55 percent to 41 percent, according to a Marquette University law school poll, which accurately predicted Walker would win by 7 points.
What accounts for this dramatic shift in public opinion? According to Democrats and many in the press, it all came down to Walker's fundraising advantage — as if voters in the state hadn't given the issues much thought until they saw TV ads this spring. But this claim doesn't withstand scrutiny. Both sides spent tens of millions of dollars over the past year in a series of campaigns — first in a race for a state supreme court judge in April (which conservatives narrowly won) and then in a round of state senate recalls in August (in which Republicans hung on to their majority despite being outspent $23 million to $20 million).
Moreover, the central issues at stake in the recall — spending, taxes, public education, unemployment, and the "rights" of government unions — had been widely debated in the press and among voters. The final Marquette poll found a highly informed electorate: Eighty-four percent said they regularly discuss politics with family and friends, and more than 8 out of 10 had watched the local news in the past week.
If Walker's budget had harmed public schools, as union activists and Democrats warned last spring, voters would have known, and there's little doubt that Walker would have lost. But the opposite happened. Before the 2011 school year began, story after story popped up in the Wisconsin press about how schools used Walker's reforms to balance their budgets without laying off teachers or making painful program cuts.
"Everything we changed didn't touch the children," the finance director of the Brown Deer school district in the Milwaukee suburbs told The Weekly Standard last July. Under a collective bargaining agreement, she said, "We could never have negotiated that — never ever." A few days before the election, the president of Brown Deer's teachers' union told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Overall morale is not bad because of [Walker's collective bargaining law]. We didn't lose any jobs and class sizes are the same."
In Neenah, the school district saved $1.8 million by adopting a new health insurance plan — savings that allowed the school board to avoid layoffs and to raise the base teacher pay by 18 percent.
After a full schoolyear with Walker's reforms in effect, his opponents couldn't explain why they were bad. Six days out from the election, Tom Barrett couldn't name a single school hurt by Walker's reforms. After two attempts to dodge the question, he finally gave up. "We can do an analysis and get back to you on that," Barrett told The Weekly Standard. The mayor also refused to say how he would have balanced the budget and couldn't name a single initiative he'd pursue to spur job creation as governor.
Walker's reforms achieved enough savings that when property tax bills went out around Christmas, many taxpayers saw their taxes significantly drop for the first time in over a decade. Though Walker's opponents claimed his policies were an assault on democracy, in a very real sense they expanded democracy — something many in the national media failed to understand. With the restrictions to collective bargaining, unions had lost the power to veto changes to their benefits. That power now resided with elected school boards. Before Walker, the state's property tax cap essentially allowed automatic tax increases. Under Walker, tax increases became subject to local referenda.
Ultimately, Walker won for a simple reason: He proposed policies, implemented them, and they worked.
Walker agrees with those who believe the results last week make Wisconsin a potential Republican pickup in November. But in order to win the state, Mitt Romney will have to campaign in a way that's consistent with what Wisconsin voters approved with their retention of Walker. He wants Romney to run as a reformer, to campaign on bold policy proposals, and to resist the temptation to run safe. "It's not enough to just be the other guy," says Walker. "He has to offer a plan, he has to show a willingness to take on the big challenges facing the country. I think he can win here if he does that."
Walker says he hopes Romney will propose deeper tax cuts than he has laid out thus far. "I'd like to see him slash marginal tax rates so that we could see the kind of growth that we saw under Ronald Reagan after the recession in 1981 and 1982," Walker says.
Walker rejects the advice Romney is getting from many Republican strategists to make the election a simple referendum on Obama and the economy. "The consultants will tell you that — hands down. But I think he's got to run on a bold plan and on big ideas." Romney needs to win "on a mandate, if you will, to govern. Romney has that background. He's capable of doing big, bold things. . . . He can't say I'm a Republican like Scott Walker and hope to win. He has to say that I'm a reformer like Scott Walker. The 'R' after his name has to stand for 'reformer,' not just 'Republican.' "
Romney might want to listen. There is no doubt Walker is in a much stronger position having survived the recall than he would have been without it. Even before the election he was a huge draw for Republican and conservative groups. When he headlined a Heritage Foundation dinner in Des Moines last October, the organization raised more money than it had at any event outside of Washington, D.C.
And now? "I can assure you that his stock as a fundraiser and speaker will skyrocket," says Cameron Sutton, a top Iowa Republican fundraiser who was part of the group that tried to recruit New Jersey governor Chris Christie to run for president. "What we like the most about him is that when he took office he was unwilling to compromise with the liberals and trade unions, and he stuck with his conservative roots. This was key to his victory in 2010 and again in the recall."
Walker says he's eager to campaign for Mitt Romney but won't be part of the Republican ticket. "My wife would kill me! I just had more than half the state vote for me — we made four million voter contacts. People put their lives on hold to help us win. I couldn't walk away from them and from my responsibilities here."