Battleground Wisconsin

Another recall battle looms in the Badger State.

“Don’t retreat! Recall!” declared Wisconsin’s Democrats after failing to take back the State senate through a special election this August. Now, backed by their allies in public sector unions, they are trying to heed their own slogan, repurposing their efforts in a bid to recall their principal hate figure, Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Early media hype has cast the state’s recall campaign as a showdown not only over Walker’s efforts to reign in collective bargaining by most public sector unions but also as a referendum on the efforts of Republican governors across the country to balance state budgets by challenging union power. But the reality may be decidedly less dramatic.

Contrary to the left-wing opposition’s spin, the recall campaign is not really representative of a broad uprising against Walker, let alone Republicans nationwide. Spearheading the recall effort is a left-wing political action group called United Wisconsin. Although United Wisconsin styles itself as a “grassroots organization” of “concerned citizens” and a “growing base of volunteers,” it would be more accurate to describe it, as the Wisconsin-based conservative watchdog group Media Trackers has, as “just another front for the Democratic Party and left-wing interests in Wisconsin.”

Despite claiming grassroots credentials, United Wisconsin has enjoyed the backing of all the Wisconsin branches of the leading government unions, including the SEIU, the AFT, and the AFL-CIO. United Wisconsin’s staff meanwhile is made up of veteran Democrat operatives and left-wing activists. Meagan Mahaffey, the group’s executive director, has a background in the state’s Democratic politics. And the group’s public relations director, Angie Aker, is also the managing director of United Wisconsin may not be entirely an “astroturf” campaign, but its clear that it has been organized by powerful left-wing advocacy groups.

That may well hurt the recall campaign, since it’s not clear that Wisconsinites generally share the left’s disdain for Walker or the desire to see him recalled. While Walker’s disapproval ratings have risen slightly in recent months, there is no clear indication that state residents want him out of office. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic poling firm, found an even split on the recall, with half in favor and half against. Whatever their feelings about Walker, on the issue of the recall Wisconsin is by no means united.

Even if the left-wing opposition can force a special recall election, it is far from certain that Walker will be ousted from office. For all their anti-Walker fervor, Democrats have yet to find a candidate who can beat the governor in a head-to-head matchup. They suffered a massive setback in this regard when former Sen. Russ Feingold, the left’s favored candidate to run against the Walker and the only Democrat with the potential to beat him according to polls, announced that he would not run, a decision he has reiterated. As Democratic strategists grumble, that leaves Democrats without a strong challenger to unseat an incumbent governor, a tough political ask in the best of times.

For his part, Walker is not simply going to roll over before the recall. Already the governor has begun his counteroffensive, releasing a series of ads opposing the recall. One ad features a high school teacher saying that the governor did what was right for Wisconsin. In another ad, a school board member affirms that her district was able to focus more money on schools after Walker’s budget reform bill was passed. Conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity are also releasing ads backing Walker’s plan to limit collective bargaining for government workers. And time is on Walker’s side. The earliest a recall election could be held is March 27, and it is expected to be much later than that as the process of challenging the recall petitions and lawsuits works itself out.

Walker can also take comfort in history. There have been only two successful gubernatorial recalls in American history, one against North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921 and one against California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. So far, at least, there has been no compelling reason to think that Scott Walker will be the third to suffer that fate.