For months, unions have told us that after their state-senate recall efforts in Wisconsin, lawmakers would learn not to scale back their collective-bargaining “rights.” The recalls would warn any state thinking about passing a law like Governor Walker’s to think again. Yet after Tuesday night’s recall elections, only one lesson is perfectly clear: It’s probably not a good idea to cheat on your wife.
In what might have been the most costly abstinence program in history, national unions dumped tens of millions of dollars in Wisconsin — yet their only notable accomplishment was to recall Republican state senator Randy Hopper, whose priapic misadventures sunk his campaign from the start. Polling leading up to the recall election showed voters were just fine with Hopper’s vote to scale back public-sector collective bargaining; they just weren’t so fine with his alleged affair with a then-25-year-old capitol staffer.
Thus, the 18th senate district, which had been represented by a Republican since 1936, went to Democrat Jessica King by a thin 1,100-vote margin. But saying Hopper’s defeat was about public-sector collective bargaining is like saying Top Gun was a movie about beach volleyball. In the end, as one high-ranking Wisconsin political figure told me, female seniors just couldn’t forgive Hopper for his transgressions. Despite being conservative, they decided they were voting for a husband and not a senator.
And yes, Democrats did also defeat GOP senator Dan Kapanke in LaCrosse, but that was more a feat of signature-gathering than electioneering. Once Kapanke was on the ballot, he was toast in a district that Barack Obama carried by more than 20 points.
It wasn’t surprising that Democrats won two of the six elections. What is surprising is the way Republicans won their four. Recent polls had many of the races within the margin of error — yet in the seats they retained, Republicans won comfortably. Rob Cowles in the Green Bay area destroyed his opponent, Democrat Nancy Nusbaum, by 20 points. Republican Sheila Harsdorf, once thought to be in danger, beat a teachers’ union official by a 58–42 margin. Luther Olsen and Alberta Darling, pinpointed as possible Dem pickups, won with 52 and 54 percent of the vote. Darling did so in a district that saw the greatest number of total votes cast, at nearly 74,000.
In fact, almost 350,000 people voted in Tuesday’s recall elections — and Republicans won 53 percent of the total vote. After blowtorching the state with negative ads and benefiting from a favorable timetable, the unions could still only get 47 percent of Wisconsinites to support their effort.
This should make the unions think long and hard about whether they want to embark on a mission to recall Gov. Scott Walker next year. Doing so successfully would easily cost them five times as much as they just spent — and even with their recent deluge of cash, most of the public still didn’t support them at the polls. Additionally, the extra time will also give Walker’s reforms more time to work — and once the public sees that schools can manage their affairs effectively without being hamstrung by union regulations, organized labor’s argument gets even weaker.
In the redistricting bill Scott Walker signed on Tuesday, the former Hopper seat gets more Republican in 2012, when Jessica King will face voters against a fresh Republican challenger. That seat seems to be an almost certain pickup for the GOP next year, which would almost immediately reverse any progress the unions made in this round of recall elections. If there’s any benefit from the Democrats’ temporary victory in that district, it might just be prompting some elected officials to buy their wives flowers a little more often.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.