Politics & Policy

Walker Nears the Finish Line

Voters respond to his focus on the big picture, Wisconsin’s economy.

Madison, Wis. — Ever since he reformed Wisconsin’s collective-bargaining laws last year, Governor Scott Walker has been cast as a villain (and worse) by the public-sector unions. Tuesday’s labor-fueled recall election has put his political career at risk. Yet in an interview over the weekend, Walker was startlingly calm about the upcoming contest. The explanation for his steady nerves is simple: He thinks he’ll win.

Here in the liberal capital, Walker tells me, it’s easy for bureaucrats and their allies to buy into the unions’ recall hype — that there’s a mass movement of citizens ready to oust the governor for asking state employees to pay a little more for their generous benefits. But as he travels around the Badger State, beyond the Madison hothouse, Walker hears a different story. Voters, he says, are fed up with the Left’s temper tantrum, which has sustained a fiercely partisan climate of perpetual campaigns.

“The best thing is when I go out to farms and factories, just about anywhere in the state, and meet people who come off of the line, who come off of the farm, and tell me that they’re praying for Tonette, my wife, and our family,” Walker says. “On a personal level, that’s such a blessing and so reassuring.” Beyond that, the strong anecdotal support for his policies, Walker says, gave him the sense months ago that, as loud as things got in Madison and elsewhere, he’d have a silent majority on his side.

“Remember, I said back in November, when they started this recall petition drive, that I welcomed this,” Walker says. “I welcome the opportunity to talk about our reforms and our plans to move the state forward. And we’ve largely been effective at that. It’s also why my opponents don’t run ads talking about our reforms or about our plan for jobs. They have moved on to anything but that since we have made our case rather aggressively.”

Indeed, since Walker’s reforms passed, state property taxes have sunk, thousands of jobs have been created, and the state budget has a surplus. The public-sector unions, for their part, have lost thousands of members, who for decades were effectively required to pay hefty annual fees. Most of the state, Walker says, is pleased about Wisconsin’s economic growth. Only the government unions, frantic about their diminished ranks, seem worried about the loss of union power in a capital long dominated by them.

Walker’s recall opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, has been forced to adjust to the political reality. Instead of running as a modern Bob LaFollette, celebrating organized labor, Barrett has had to stress other, non-related issues, such as Walker’s association with troubled former staffers. (A handful of his former allies are under criminal investigation for improperly campaigning while Walker was Milwaukee’s county executive.) Walker has denied any involvement and he has not been contacted by the authorities. Barrett continues to insist it’s a “bombshell.”

“This has never really been about this issue or that issue, it’s about [Democrats] trying to refight the last election,” Walker says, where he beat Barrett by six percentage points. “That was our initial feeling, that they were using [the collective-bargaining legislation] as an excuse.” Barrett’s decision to shift the conversation away from collective bargaining was an indication of his indecision about the race’s core question. Instead of chiding Walker for his policies, Barrett has hammered the governor for ruffling feathers — accusing him of starting a political “civil war.”

Walker and his campaign team responded to Barrett’s small-ball tactics by focusing on the big picture — moving Wisconsin forward by encouraging businesses to hire. It didn’t get more complicated than that, he says. During the pair’s two debates, Walker occasionally brought up some of Barrett’s problems in Milwaukee, such as a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report that found the city’s crime statistics to be misclassified, but he mostly tried to stay above the fray — “to seem gubernatorial,” as Milwaukee talk-radio host Charlie Sykes puts it.

In the final hours of the campaign, Walker is crisscrossing the state, attending dairy breakfasts in rural towns and visiting crowded phone banks near Milwaukee and Madison. “Turnout is key,” Walker says. “As this continues to be a head-to-head battle, we clearly need the base to come out.” Even if his 2010 supporters do not come out in similar numbers, he hopes to build a coalition that includes independents who are pleased with the improved economy, as well as Democrats who are tired of the recalls.

“We’ve got to drive hard all the way through to 8 p.m. on Tuesday,” Walker says. “The other day, Paul Ryan said that courage is on the ballot. He’s right. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about enabling elected leaders — at the local, state, and federal level — to have the courage to take on the tough issues,” from pension reform to entitlement reform.

“When we prevail, it’ll send an overwhelming message to voters here and around the country — that if you do the right thing, if you think about the next generation, not the next election, then voters will stand with you,” Walker says. “If we lose, it’d set back courage in American politics at least a decade, if not a generation, and that would be devastating.” But he remains optimistic. His spirits are up, as are his poll numbers. He may not have a huge personality, or wide popularity, but the fiscal figures are in his favor. Come Tuesday night, Walker says, he hopes the final tally is, too.

—- Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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