The "Good News" Wisconsin Indicator

To quote America’s greatest philosopher, Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But, with so much riding on November’s elections, everybody wants a good clue. The election of Scott Brown to Massachusetts’ “Kennedy Senate Seat” in January 2010 was a good harbinger of the Tea Party revolt that swept that year’s mid-term elections. That was a surprise. The Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin comes with trumpets sounding and bells ringing.

A bit of background:

– Walker was elected in November 2010, with a commitment to fix a $3.6 billion dollar budget deficit. He succeeded in the short run in part by requiring public employees to contribute to pensions and health care, and in the long run by removing those subjects from collective bargaining and making membership in public employee unions voluntary. Along the way he instituted a property tax cap, passed a voter ID law (since overturned), and freed local school districts from a requirement to purchase insurance from a corrupt plan run by the teacher’s union.

– In less than a year he succeeded beyond expectations. The state budget gap was closed and local property taxes were actually lowered – except in Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha, union strongholds where sweetheart contracts were signed before the effective date of Walker’s reforms. Unemployment has dropped from 7.7 to 6.9 % and Walker has highlighted the difference from neighboring Illinois which chose to close their gap with a 66 % personal income tax rate increase.

– While local officials appreciate the lower labor costs and taxes, the public employee unions are apoplectic. Their 2011 recall effort fell slightly short against a state supreme court judge who approved the anti-union laws; two state senators were recalled, leaving the Republicans with a bare majority. (Another small wave of senate recall votes in June promises to fail.) The state assembly remains 59-39 Republican for the moment.

And a bit of broader perspective:

– Wisconsin has a long history of colorful politicians – Progressive “Fighting Bob” LaFollett; anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy; Senator William Proxmire of “Golden Fleece Awards” fame; the birthplace of the anti-slavery Republican Party; the home of the John Birch Society. The state is both strongly liberal and strongly conservative. The industrial southeast quadrant is strongly pro-union. The public has been subjected to two years of a non-stop political brawl.

– Wisconsin is a swing state whose 10 electoral votes have gone Democratic in the past three presidential elections. More recently, Reince Priebus, the new chair of the national Republican Party, oversaw a renaissance there which has included the election of Tea Party favorite Senator Ron Johnson (who defeated liberal icon Russ Feingold), a take-over of the governorship and both legislative chambers, and replacement of long-time Democrat House Budget Committee Chair David Obey by Sean Duffy. (The delegation is now 5-3 Republican, including Paul Ryan.) The wave promises to continue this year with the retirement of four-term Democratic Senator Herb Kohl who is favored to be replaced with a Republican.

And in the Walker recall election:

–  The big kahuna – now that the requisite year has passed since Walker’s taking office, it is his turn to face the union-led do-over effort.

– This is a contest between long-time adversaries. Tom Barrett, the Democratic establishment mayor of Milwaukee lost to Walker, the Milwaukee County Executive, by 52-47% in 2010. The third contender, liberal Madison-based Kathleen Falk, has, like Barrett, been running unsuccessfully for governor for a decade. Since Mayor Barrett has used some of Walker’s reforms to rein in Milwaukee workers, the unions have supported Falk in the May 8 Democratic primary, but the public disagrees and Barrett is favored to face Walker in the June 5 election.

– Polling has been volatile and reflective of a year of negative ads.   Current polling by Democratic pollster PPP and the Daily Kos  shows Walker ahead of Barrett by five points or Falk by seven, gaining among independent voters, and benefiting from the contest between the two Democrats as the only candidate whose “favorables” exceed their “unfavorables”. Amazingly, he is above 50% after a year of virulent attacks.

This election is a big deal in itself, but it also will provide a glimpse on whether Tea Party enthusiasm has crested in the industrial Midwest, whether the movement to rein in public employee unions has legs, and whether the Republicans are likely to carry Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes and pick up one of the four seats that they need to gain control of the Senate. June 5 is by far the most important political day yet in 2012.


This week’s video is a stunning clip of the Republican nominee to defeat Utah’s only Democratic congressman – Mia Love, a typical articulate female Mormon Haitian immigrant.