Looking at Recall Vote as Drawing Lines for Fall

WASHINGTON — As a laboratory of democracy, the battle to recall Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin had all of the messy pieces: a clash of armies on the ground, the influence of a vast amount of money and the broader context of an improving but still sagging economy.

Republicans harnessed it all to Mr. Walker's advantage, tapping into the public's queasiness about the wisdom of a recall and its divided opinions about union benefits to deliver a blunt warning to President Obama and Democrats about what they might face in November.

Mr. Walker's victory was helped by political crosscurrents unique to Wisconsin, where the historic union-led attempt to remove the governor halfway through his four-year term was the culmination of red-hot anger over his push to end collective bargaining for public workers. But the outcome also provided a kind of election-year exercise that put on full display the financial, economic and organizational forces that are already shaping the presidential contest between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee.

"Wisconsin was a microcosm of the national race," said Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "The issues that Scott Walker campaigned and ran on are the same issues that are going to divide Mitt Romney and Barack Obama."

But whether Mr. Romney can produce the same result as Mr. Walker is unclear. Exit polls showed that 17 percent of the same voters who opposed the recall of their Republican governor also said they preferred Mr. Obama. Many also said Mr. Obama would do a better job on the economy and for the middle class than would Mr. Romney. And swing states, including Wisconsin, are generally doing better economically than the country as a whole.

Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney's campaign, said the Wisconsin vote underscores the power of the broader Republican argument in the presidential race about the size and role of government. But he noted that Wisconsin does not automatically lean Republican.

"I don't think we should assume that because there was a victory yesterday, there will be a victory in November in Wisconsin," Mr. Gillespie told reporters on Wednesday at a Bloomberg News breakfast. "I do think it's in play, and that's telling."

Although Mr. Obama kept his distance from the state in the final weeks of the union-led recall effort, his party, his campaign team and his labor allies exerted an enormous joint effort there that proved to be mismatched for the organized and well-financed Republican apparatus.

The corporate interests and billionaires who are pouring cash into Mr. Romney's "super PACs" gave millions to Mr. Walker. To combat those resources, Mr. Obama's campaign, aided by union allies, constructed a turnout machine in Wisconsin that they said will be a model for other battleground states.

More than 40 offices run by the Democratic National Committee and Mr. Obama's campaign deployed more than 100 paid staff members alongside union and state volunteers for months in what amounts to the first real test of the president's ground game before November's election.

Before Tuesday's vote, Democratic leaders had bragged about what they predicted would be their superior on-the-ground turnout efforts. In an interview late last month, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called the Wisconsin recall a "dry run" for the party and for Mr. Obama's campaign.

"All of the Obama for America and state-party resources, our grass-roots network, is fully engaged," Ms. Schultz said.

But the Democratic effort on the ground — so successful in a state that Mr. Obama won by 14 points in the 2008 presidential race — failed to turn out enough voters for the Democrat, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. Turnout was up by about 400,000 from 2010, but many of those voters cast ballots to keep Mr. Walker in office.

The outcome prompted top Democrats to warn on Wednesday that the party — and the president — can't count on organizational superiority to trump the hundreds of millions of dollars in television advertising that is likely to come from outside groups in the coming months.

"The Wisconsin results should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats: on-the-ground organizing is critically important, but it must be coupled with an aggressive air campaign," Representative Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. "Without robust air cover, the voice of the middle class will be silenced."

Yet the deluge of television advertising and activity may have had little effect, given the strength of feelings on the issue. Nearly 9 in 10 voters said they made up their minds a month ago.

Mr. Walker and Mr. Obama may have each benefited from incumbency, earning some credit for the improving economy in Wisconsin even as the two parties point fingers at each other for slowing down the recovery.

Graphic: Shifts in Wisconsin Voters

Graphic: Millions Spent on Wisconsin Recall Election

Graphic: Wisconsin Recall Exit Polls: How Different Groups Voted


Talk of Higher Office Swirls Around Wisconsin Governor in the Spotlight (June 7, 2012)

Unions, at Center of Wisconsin Recall Vote, Suffer a New Setback in Its Outcome (June 7, 2012)

Related in Opinion

Editorial: The Message From Wisconsin (June 7, 2012)

Brooks, Collins: Recall of the Wild (June 6, 2012)

.Taking Note: Over-Interpreting Wisconsin (June 6, 2012)

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.But five months before the general election, the biggest political lesson from Wisconsin may be that the overwhelming dominance of money on the Republican side will continue to haunt Democrats.

The biggest contributors to Mr. Walker included investments from Bob Perry, the Houston homebuilder whose family has spent more than $8 million this election cycle; Foster Friess, the entrepreneur who was the leading benefactor to Rick Santorum; Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who provided millions to Newt Gingrich; and Charles and David Koch, whose group helped finance millions in advertisements.

"The fact that you've got a handful of self-interested billionaires who are trying to leverage their money across the country," said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama's senior campaign strategist, said in an interview. "Does that concern me? Of course that concerns me."

State law allowed unlimited contributions to Mr. Walker's campaign, mirroring the free flow of money into presidential campaigns via federal super PACs that were allowed under the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC that did not provide money to Mr. Walker, said that conservative donors were motivated by fears of huge spending by labor unions to oust the Republican governor.

"The expectation that unions will spend aggressively in the fall is continuing to galvanize donors," Mr. Law said.

Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., told reporters on Wednesday that the results in Wisconsin underscores the union's concern about letting unlimited money into politics.

"Let's be clear," he said, "Citizens United has ushered in a new era of elections, and it's not a pretty picture."

But Mr. Axelrod said he was confident that the president's campaign would be in a better position to respond aggressively than was Mr. Barrett.

"We start off in a better place, and we're not going to get outspent eight to one," Mr. Axelrod said. "We are not going to have just a month to run our campaign. You cannot draw that parallel here. We're in an entirely different situation."

Democrats on Wednesday sought to portray the vote in Wisconsin as a special case featuring two local candidates and issues — like Mr. Walker's push to restrict collective bargaining rights — that limit the parallels that can be drawn with Mr. Obama's race against Mr. Romney.

Party officials said the support for Mr. Obama among voters leaving polling places suggests Wisconsin residents were uncomfortable ousting a sitting governor but are supportive of the president's policies and are not inclined to vote for Mr. Romney in the fall.

At a fund-raiser in San Antonio, Texas, on Wednesday, Mr. Romney characterized the outcome of the recall election as "another signal — and it will echo throughout the country."

New York Times, Wed Jun 6 2012
Byline: Jeff Zeleny

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