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None of this might matter if Barrett where a shoo-in to defeat Walker next month, but he isn’t. Barrett has already lost to Walker in 2010, when he was his challenger for governor. That high-profile race gave him the statewide name recognition and clout to beat Falk, but Walker is a different proposition altogether. Still, the race will be close. Polls show the two are in a statistical tie with weeks to go.
That bad news for Barrett is that his path to victory is far from clear. Democrats’ original intent had been to use Walker’s budget reforms – most notably the restrictions on collective bargaining and some cuts in state aid – against him. Unfortunately for this strategy, collective bargaining is not the hot-button for most voters that it is for union and left-wing activists. Meanwhile, Walker’s cuts in state aid, forced by the state’s yawning $3.6 billion deficit, have not hit nearly as hard as Democratic talking points suggest.
That is in large part because of something Democrats and unions cannot bring themselves to admit: Slowly but surely, Walker’s reforms have been working. Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining, for instance, have allowed Wisconsin’s school districts to generate substantial savings, and thereby to avoid the massive layoffs that teachers unions claimed were inevitable. Nor have Walker’s budget cuts brought the state to its knees, as Barrett knows. Last year, he charged that Walker’s cuts would make Milwaukee’s deficit “explode.” Instead, Walker’s curbs on collective bargaining contributed to the city posting an $11 million net gain in its 2012 budget. The only explosion was of the egg on Barrett’s face.
One area where Walker remains vulnerable is jobs, of which the state has produced fewer than Walker promised. But on this issue, too, Walker has a case to make. After hemorrhaging months for the past year, Wisconsin has begun gaining jobs recently and the state’s unemployment is now at its lowest point since 2008. And while Walker remains a polarizing figure in the state, polls show that Wisconsinites believe his reforms have made it more hospitable to businesses and job creation. In a recall that has deeply divided the state, that is a positive message to take into election day.
Needless to say, this is not where Walker’s opposition expected to be at this point in the recall. Goaded on by a friendly media, they believed their own hype that Walker was a “dead man walking,” as a Time magazine article dubbed him. But as the recall effort founders amidst internal feuding and a loss of enthusiasm for the unions’ agenda, it may well be that Walker will be the one who lives to tell this tale.
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