Milwaukee, Wis.– Governor Scott Walker arrives casually, in jeans and a slate-gray shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It’s a warm, clear Saturday night in southeastern Wisconsin — perfect weather to watch the Brewers, who are playing the Pittsburgh Pirates downtown. The only people at this campaign outpost, a nondescript glass office building about a mile from Walker’s home, are the die-hards. A crowd of 20 people hovers outside near the door; another 30 people are inside. They applaud as Walker slowly makes his way into the phone center, handshake by handshake.
At the office’s makeshift reception desk, Ricardo Tapia, a 20-year-old rising senior at Boston College and the son of Mexican immigrants, mans five cheap black telephones. He stands up and stretches his right arm as Walker nears. They exchange brief pleasantries next to a pile of dark-blue “I Stand with Scott Walker” posters and a basket of “Luv My Guv” buttons. Tapia, who is living at home for the summer break, has been coming here for the past week — making hundreds of calls, eating pizza, and chatting with other volunteers, most of whom are older and more pessimistic. Tapia is upbeat. “The case has been made,” he says. “People may be quiet about it, but they see things getting better.”
Many local Republicans, Tapia observes, have been involved with Republican campaigns for decades, and they’ve learned to expect trouble. They’re concerned about Occupy-type hijinks, especially in Madison, the state capital 80 miles to the west that is nestled like a Little Berkeley in the heart of liberal Dane County. They also consider Milwaukee, this deep-blue metropolis, as a potential problem on Election Day. “You’re never surprised to be surprised,” chuckles John Larrabee, a 54-year-old truck driver who lives a few steps from the Milwaukee teachers’ union.
For the past week, Larrabee has seen college-age liberals on his block, urging residents to get on buses and participate in early voting. A group of public-school teachers from Illinois, he adds, trekked up to Milwaukee to assist their fellow public-sector-union members. Larrabee spotted them making their rounds. The city has been swarmed. But what irks him the most is a letter he recently received from the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, an influential and union-funded 527 group.
Larrabee pulls the document from his pocket and tosses it next to his telephone. It lists his neighbors, their addresses, and whether they voted in the past two elections. The letter uses public information, Larrabee acknowledges. In his view, that doesn’t make it kosher. He points to the last line of the letter: “After the June 5th election, public records will tell everyone who voted and who didn’t.” For public employees and small businesses that work with unions, that’s an ominous warning. Across the table, Jim, an African-American truck driver wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” cap, agrees. He doesn’t want to share his surname. “They’re crazy,” he says. “I’ve heard stories about how people have been targeted for simply supporting the governor.”
Sixteen months after Walker and state GOP lawmakers passed landmark collective-bargaining reforms, Wisconsin has been the central battleground in a nationwide struggle between fiscally conservative governors and Big Labor over pensions and benefits. Tuesday’s recall election, where Walker faces Democrat Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, is one of many firestorms that have engulfed the state. There was a contentious state Supreme Court election in April 2011 and a slew of state-senate recall elections last autumn. More state senators are on the recall ballot this week.
The recent visitors to this tiny phone center reflect the recall’s importance to conservatives across the country. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chairman, stopped by a few hours before Walker on Saturday; Senator Ron Johnson, a tea-party star, came by on Friday afternoon to offer encouragement. “People are revved up,” Jim says. “The problem is that a lot of people aren’t hearing from the media about the good things happening for the taxpayers. That’s why I’m here, making calls on this beautiful day — to fight the temper tantrum.”
Walker makes his way around the room, and his appreciation is apparent. These people — many of them blue-collar industrial workers, evangelicals, and conservative retirees — aren’t merely supporters; they’re his base. Many of them have been volunteering for his campaigns since he first ran for the state legislature. They boosted him when he served as Milwaukee County executive, then backed him with fervor during his 2010 gubernatorial effort. Turnout in the more suburban and affluent stretches of the greater Milwaukee region — Wauwatosa, Waukesha, and Whitefish Bay — will be critical to his statewide numbers. Even with millions in the bank and national leaders rallying to his side, every call matters.
“We can’t thank you enough,” Walker tells the crowd. When he begins to speak, a horde of television cameramen scramble to the middle of the call center and click on their Klieg lights. Flanked by his wife, Tonette, and his two high-school-age sons, Matt and Alex, Walker starts to fire up the troops: “On Tuesday, we need to send a powerful message across the state and across the country that we stood up to the powerful special interests here in Wisconsin and in Washington, and we put the power firmly back in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.”
Walker’s backers cheer. He raises his voice and asks, “Do we go forward, or do we go backward?” The crowd’s response is immediate: “Forward!” A few of the attendees laugh and say “lean forward” — a reference to the slogan of MSNBC, the cable network that has given the unions ample positive coverage.
“Our reforms are working,” Walker says. Property taxes have gone down, job growth is up, and the state budget shows a surplus. “We’re heading in the right direction, but we’re not done yet. We’ve built a positive foundation for success, but we’ve got to do more to move this state forward.” Contrast that record with Barrett’s Milwaukee record, and the choice is clear. Barrett is a typical tax-and-spend liberal, Walker says, with a go-along, get-along relationship with the unions.
Walker pauses and looks at the pile of posters on Tapia’s desk — the ones emblazoned with “I Stand with Scott Walker.” He smiles. “I love those signs,” he says. “Well, let me tell you, I’m going to affirm yet again on Tuesday that the reason so many people stand with me is because every day I’m in office, I stand with the hardworking taxpayers.” The place roars. Walker reminds them that in the final hours of the campaign, they need to reach out to everyone they know, “even at church” on Sunday. “It’s not only important to get our base out, but I still think there are voters we can get to with the truth,” he says. “The truth is our secret weapon. The more the facts get out, the more the voters come our way.”
Walker wraps up by talking about his sons, citing the next generation, not the unions, as his motivation for fiscal reform. He makes his way around the room once more, shaking each hand a second time. A few minutes later, he’s off, back to his home down the road, where he and his campaign staff will plan a packed, get-out-the-vote tour for Monday and Tuesday. Jim, Tapia, Larrabee, and a dozen volunteers stay inside, where empty Diet Coke cans and pizza boxes have piled up. It’s late, and the Brewers are in the fourth inning. Barbecues and summer parties are being missed. But there’s work to be done. “Important work,” Tapia says. He and others pull up folding chairs and begin to dial.
—Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.