How much — or little — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in his recall election Tuesday tells us about the state of play heading into the fall election is an open question.
What we can answer is why Walker won. We put that question to Democratic and Republican strategists in the final days of the recall campaign and developed a clear image of what went right for the incumbent — or, as accurately, wrong for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, D.
It’s always important to remember that no win or loss in politics is ever attributable to a single factor, and so all of the following reasons worked together to ensure that Walker won and Barrett didn’t.
— The Democratic primary: To hear those who worked in the trenches of the recall effort tell it, the fact that Democrats had a contested primary between Barrett and former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk bears considerable responsibility for Walker’s victory. Organized labor spent millions in support of Falk (and against Barrett), spending that many Democrats believe weakened the eventual nominee. Democratic pollsters insisted that Walker was languishing in the early spring but rebounded as Barrett and Falk fought among themselves in the primary.
— Money: As of Monday, more than $63 million had been spent on the recall fight, with Walker and his conservative allies vastly outspending Barrett and other Democratic-aligned groups.
— 2010: There was considerable internal discussion and disagreement between Washington and Wisconsin Democrats (and organized labor) about whether to push for a recall election this summer or wait until 2014 for a chance to unseat Walker. (Washington Democrats broadly favored the latter option, Wisconsin Democrats and labor the former.)
As the recall effort played out, it became clear that those few who were undecided tended to resist the recall effort because Walker had just been elected in 2010.
— Milwaukee: As is true in any state that has a single dominant city in terms of population and profile, there is resentment toward that city from everyone who doesn’t live in it. Barrett’s ties to Milwaukee, therefore, wound up hurting him far more than many Democrats expected at the start of the contest.