Last night was a big election day in Wisconsin. Or, as it has come to be known to Dairy State residents, “Tuesday.” Recall day in Wisconsin yesterday began with a woman trying to run her husband over with her car after he tried to keep her from voting in the Democratic primary. And then things actually got exciting.
As expected, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett went on to handily defeat the public-sector unions’ favored candidate, Kathleen Falk, and will now take on Governor Scott Walker in the June 5recall election. Barrett crushed Falk by a 58 to 34 percentage point margin, even beating Falk handily in her own home county.
Yet on a night when Democrats picked their standard bearer (or pallbearer, depending on what happens in four weeks), Scott Walker actually ended up being a major storyline. In an election in which Walker ran essentially unopposed (and if your challenger is this guy, you are essentially unopposed), Walker garnered about 15,000 more votes than Falk and Barrett combined. Republican voters had absolutely nothing to vote for, and yet they turned out in droves to send a message.
A bit of context: Traditionally, vote totals in contested primaries vastly exceed vote totals in corresponding primaries that are essentially uncontested. Take, for instance, the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Walker faced off against former congressman Mark Neumann, and Barrett ran for his party’s nomination essentially unopposed. Over 618,000 people voted in the GOP primary, while only 236,000 voters cast ballots in the Dem primary, where there was nothing at stake. That same year, Ron Johnson ran in a U.S. Senate GOP primary against several other candidates, while incumbent Russ Feingold was unopposed. The GOP primary drew 596,000 voters, while Feingold garnered only 224,000 votes. The Republican gubernatorial and Senate primaries drew 263 percent and 266 percent more voters, respectively, than the Democrats.
The same effect traditionally occurs for Democratic primaries. In 2002, a Democratic gubernatorial primary featuring, coincidentally, Tom Barrett, Kathleen Falk, and eventual winner Jim Doyle, drew 554,000 votes. Incumbent Republican governor Scott McCallum, running virtually unopposed, saw 230,000 votes in his primary — giving Democrats a 241 percent vote advantage.
Yet last night’s primary saw something very different. Last night’s Democratic turnout for a contested primary (Falk, Barrett, and lesser candidates Doug La Follette, Kathleen Vinehout, and Walker’s liberal primary challenger) only surpassed Walker’s vote total by 8 percent. Furthermore, the Democratic vote total was likely padded by Republicans who crossed over to vote for Kathleen Falk, sensing she would be an easier challenger for Walker to defeat in June. (In the absence of exit-polling data, we will never know how many people were in this category; but in the days leading up to the primary, it was a very real debate among Republicans.)
Another reason Walker’s vote total was so high may have been the enthusiasm gap between his supporters and union loyalists. According to a poll released by Marquette University last week, Walker is viewed favorably by 85 percent of Republicans; Barrett, on the other hand, is only viewed favorably by 62 percent of Democrats. Getting between a Walker supporter and the polling booth is like stepping between John Edwards and a can of hair spray. Conversely, Barrett’s use of Walker’s new law to help balance his city’s budget has earned him a milquetoast reception among his own party’s voters.
Since the recall was announced, Democrats boasted that the wind was at their backs; they beat their chests about turning in “1 million” recall petition signatures, assuming everyone that signed was going to come out and vote against Walker. Yet even a second-grader can figure out that having 60 days to collect signatures from both registered and non-registered voters is much different from having one day to get actual registered voters to the polls. Consequently, the number of signatures they bragged about collecting ended up outnumbering their total live primary voters by about 350,000.
In accepting his party’s nomination, Barrett gave a rousing speech that, as noted by Slate’s Dave Weigel, omitted two crucial words: “collective” and “bargaining.” Barrett said the “race is not about the past. It is about the future of Wisconsin,” which is particularly ironic since he just beat his 2002 opponent, Kathleen Falk, and now wants to re-litigate the 2010 election against Scott Walker. Clearly, Barrett knows the turmoil of the past year and a half doesn’t help his cause, and would rather talk about anything other than public-union power, which is the entire reason there’s a recall election at all.
President Obama even chimed in with a statement, saying he is “proud to stand with Tom Barrett.” Of course, Obama doesn’t stand with Barrett on the issue of public-sector collective bargaining, as the overwhelming majority of federal employees don’t have the power to bargain for wages and benefits.
Despite their initial misgivings about Barrett, unions quickly circled the wagons around their new nominee. In a statement, AFSCME announced they were “unified in our support for Barrett and will do everything we can to make sure he defeats Scott Walker.” Of course, in campaign-speak, that means Barrett’s about to get a check with a whole lot of zeroes on it.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.