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Seven Ways Wisconsin's Recall Vote May Matter To You

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker (right) celebrates his win over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett at Tuesday night's victory party in Waukesha, Wis.
Morry Gash
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker (right) celebrates his win over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett at Tuesday night's victory party in Waukesha, Wis.

For weeks now, we in the news business have been telling you how much the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin matters to the country as a whole.

My colleague Ken Rudin, the Political Junkie with whom I share the weekly podcast version of It's All Politics, and I have both compared the Wisconsin recall effort to the Spanish Civil War that immediately preceded World War II. Both served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the larger conflagration to come.

The media drumbeat has become so insistent, you might think we're straining to keep the attention of the 98.12 percent of Americans who do not live in Wisconsin (2010 Census figures). You might even suspect there were a few advertising dollars at stake in the matter.

But cynicism aside, there are ways in which the vote — which Walker survived rather easily in the end, defeating Milwaukee Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett — might actually touch your life.

  • Walker's win may change the way your state bargains with its employees. (And that may include you.) Tuesday's result may embolden other governors to move against public employee unions. The Republican governor's law curtailing collective bargaining for Wisconsin's public employees had been the galvanizing issue behind the recall push. His dramatic win in this closely watched contest reverses the momentum of a vote held last fall in Ohio, repealing a similar law enacted in that state in 2011. That vote had big labor believing it could chop down the Walker tree, too — a major miscalculation.
  • Walker's win may change labor politics in your state more generally. Private company unions may also feel greater pressure from statehouses and legislatures around the country. Although Walker worked hard to placate union people in the private sector (and ran nearly even among voters from private union households), there will be those who see his success in restricting collective bargaining in the public sector as a template to roll back collective bargaining across the board.
  • Walker's win could affect your state's budget priorities. Labor policy was not the only cause of the recall vote. His resistance to taxes and preference for austerity in social programs and education were driven home in his first budget, accentuating a divide that already existed in the state. The revenue-versus-cutbacks debate is common across the states. It is also a dominant theme in the political gridlock in Washington. By surviving the recall, Walker has bolstered the morale of pro-austerity conservatives everywhere.
  • Walker's win could weaken President Obama's re-election chances by putting Wisconsin in play in November. After six straight presidential elections in the Democratic column, Wisconsin has been looking pretty blue — especially when candidate Obama carried it by 14 points in 2008. Recent projections have tended to count it among his likely wins. But Republicans have insisted everything is now different in the Badger State, and Tuesday's vote will be seen as confirmation. Recent polls that showed Walker beating the recall also showed Obama beating Romney in Wisconsin, so this is a point yet to be proven.
  • Walker's win could inspire conservatives generally in this campaign season. Conservatives have come to see the Walker recall election as an uber-referendum on their cause. You will almost surely hear it referred to by Republican candidates through the rest of this campaign year. In the weeks and months ahead, Republican candidates will be calibrating their positions carefully to win as many votes as possible in federal, state and local elections around the country. Walker's win is another thumb on the scale in favor of hardline conservatism. He is seen as slaying not only the beast of the public employee unions, but also the beast of big government itself. That is why the conservative magazine National Review had an anticipatory cover illustration in which Walker is depicted as the mythical Perseus, holding aloft the severed head of Medusa the Gorgon. The cartoon had no labels and perhaps needed none.
  • Walker's win highlights the role of Big Money in the politics of our time. The recalls of various state officials in Wisconsin were aided and resisted by big players from outside the state from the beginning. But by the end of the yearlong struggle, the state had become a virtual bystander (and a battlefield) for the clash of titans from someplace else. The saturation TV advertising was toxic, but its exact effect on the eventual outcome is unclear. A day may come when independent voters are turned off by special elections that cost tens of millions of dollars and are financed by outside interests (including labor unions and billionaires who detest labor unions). Do independent voters mind if one candidate spends seven times as much as the other, taking most of his big checks from outside the state? Someday they might, but that time was not this Tuesday. Walker and Barrett wound up with a vote split almost identical to what they had in the governor's race in 2010 (when Wisconsin was just Wisconsin).
  • Walker's win may have upgraded his personal ticket enough to be considered for the national ticket. Walker became a conservative hero almost from the first week of his governorship in 2011, and that status will be revitalized by this week's vote. He becomes a likely featured speaker at this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago, and possibly at the GOP convention in Tampa in August. But before he starts thinking "running mate" thoughts, Walker must dispel the cloud of a criminal investigation of activities in his office when he was Milwaukee County executive. Several former aides and others have been charged as a result of the probe of possible misappropriation of funds and misuse of public resources for campaign purposes. Walker has not been charged, but it should soon become clear whether local prosecutors are including him among the targets of their ongoing investigation.
  • As you read this list, you may find yourself rebutting each assertion in your own mind. There may be any number of reasons these broad readings of the Wisconsin vote prove unfounded. The projected effects may happen in some parts of the country or in some states, but not in yours. You may even see a pushback from labor or a comeback by government employees.

    So maybe the Wisconsin recall vote won't really change your life, but as media obsessions go, it's at least worth some of your consideration. It surely will have more impact on you than Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee or Venus' transit across the sun.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.