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The Race Is On

Which Democrat can beat Gov. Scott Walker in a recall?

Apr. 4, 2012
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With Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett now entering the fray, it appears that there will be a four-way primary for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the recall election.

Barrett has run twice for governor, losing in a primary in 2002 and losing in the general election in 2010 to Walker. He is late getting into the race, but his statewide name recognition is still very high and most people assumed that he was going to run. He had also been working hard to raise money long before he declared his candidacy.

Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk was the first one to say that she would be a candidate against Walker if a recall election were called, and she has been an active candidate for many months. Falk, who has been working hard, campaigning and meeting people throughout the state, was very active in the Recall Walker movement. She has many endorsements from two major constituencies of the Democratic Party, environmental organizations like Clean Wisconsin and most labor unions. Those endorsements bring both campaign workers and financial support. Like Barrett, Falk also has run twice statewide, losing in the gubernatorial primary in 2002 and losing in an attorney general race in 2006, when right-wing special-interest groups spent several million dollars on attack ads that contained many lies and distortions.

Secretary of State Doug La Follette was first elected to his statewide office in 1974; he lost for lieutenant governor in 1978 and was re-elected secretary of state in 1982. He has served in that position since then. Although La Follette holds a statewide office, he does not have the name recognition of either Barrett or Falk and historically has never been able to raise much campaign money.

Kathleen Vinehout is the relative newcomer. She is in her second term as a state senator from the Eau Claire area in the northwestern part of the state. She is a good public speaker and a very confident person. However, she has angered a sizable portion of the Democratic Party constituency after running as a pro-choice Democrat but voting differently once elected. Many active Democrats felt betrayed by her total flip-flop on a very important issue.

Who Will Win the Primary?

So which Democrat will face Scott Walker in the June 5 recall election? There are a number of issues and questions for people to speculate about.

First of all, will all four declared candidates actually file the papers with the necessary signatures to be on the ballot? None of the four has to put their current position at risk, and the number of required signatures is a very modest 2,000 signatures, so it looks like a no-brainer.

However, there are risks for the three current officeholders. If Mayor Barrett, Sen. Vinehout or Secretary of State La Follette does particularly poorly in the primary—especially in their current constituency—it could make them vulnerable to a primary challenge from a fellow Democrat in their next election. If, for example, a relative newcomer like Vinehout loses in her own state senate district, that could mark the beginning of the end of her political career. On the other hand, if Vinehout has a strong showing and loses in a close election, that could enhance her status and make her a serious statewide contender in the future. So it is not as much of a free ride as it might appear.

Conventional wisdom is that because this race has such a short time period—six weeks from when the recall election was certified to the primary election day of May 8—only candidates with high name recognition or access to significant campaign funds will be serious contenders. That logic puts Mayor Barrett and former Dane County Executive Falk as the two front-runners. They also represent or have represented the two largest Democratic strongholds in Wisconsin, with Barrett the mayor of the largest city in a Democratic county and Falk the former county executive of the very Democratic Dane County. The population demographics give those two added strength in a primary election.

Falk has also received strong support from many labor unions, which might well spend significant money on independent expenditures on her behalf. Barrett has angered some of the unions by supporting the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools and utilizing Walker's "tools" to balance his city budget. However, with the economy only beginning to show signs of recovery, there are still many people hurting—and when the economy is in trouble, people get frightened, which can bring out their lesser angels, and some people begin to resent their union neighbors who seem to be doing better. There may well be a bit of a backlash against this perceived union support, which could benefit Barrett.

Who Is the Best Candidate Against Walker?

Since the state is pretty evenly split between supporters of Scott Walker and those who will vote for any Democrat, there will be only a small percentage of uncommitted voters. One argument is that because the small percentage of undecided voters is disproportionately composed of moderate independents and moderate Republican women, Kathleen Falk might well have an advantage there.

Barrett went face-to-face against Walker in 2010 and lost, so why will it be different this year? Barrett's supporters will argue that he lost the November 2010 election by a few percentage points in a very bad year for Democrats. Barrett, they argue, was caught in a wave election year that reaped victories for conservative Republicans throughout the country. Even U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold lost after 18 years in office to a tea party candidate, and Feingold and Barrett lost by roughly the same margins to their conservative opponents. Barrett's supporters also argue that many people who voted for Walker against Barrett now regret that vote after seeing the extreme agenda Walker has promoted. They view a Walker-Barrett rematch as a chance to undo their mistake.

Walker's recall is a historic election in Wisconsin, so many argue that it should be a truly historic event by electing Falk as Wisconsin's first female governor. Falk served as Dane County executive for 14 years, and she balanced her nearly half-billion-dollar annual budgets each year without the gimmicks used by the Milwaukee County executive.

A major question is whether the unions supporting Falk would enthusiastically get behind Barrett if he does win the primary election. Some in the labor community argue that they wouldn't support Barrett in the general election against Walker, although they would work hard to defeat Walker. Others argue that after they saw what Walker's agenda really was, like him or not, they would have to get behind Barrett. In 2010, the leadership of the state teachers' union would not do independent expenditures on Barrett's behalf because of his support of the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee schools. They were angry at Barrett and did little to help him in his campaign against Walker, only to see Walker elected and their bargaining rights eviscerated. Will they do that again?

                                                                           Do We Want Real Change?

The Scott Walker recall was promoted as an effort to change his radical right-wing agenda. The problem is that there will be very little change even if a Democrat beats him in the recall and becomes governor.

The Democrats will almost certainly win control of the state Senate in the June recalls. But even if they also win the governor's race, the Republicans will still control the state Assembly by a significant margin, so none of Walker's policies will be reversed.

The people who truly want change need to help Democrats take over the state Assembly. They can do that by starting recall petitions against about 15 vulnerable Republicans in the Assembly. It is definitely not too late to initiate these recalls, but it soon will be. Even if these recall elections are in September or October, the change takes place immediately. The winner of a recall election takes office within days of the election. If there are Assembly recalls and if enough Democrats win to constitute a majority in that house, there would be a window of time between the September or October recall election and January 2013—when a new legislative session begins, following the November election—to bring Wisconsin back to the center and away from the extremist Republican agenda.

Will it be difficult? Of course. But if the Democrats can win control of both houses and the governor's office, they could draw a more balanced redistricting plan and create competitive legislative districts. Competitive legislative districts are the best solution to curbing the extremism in government. If this isn't done, the next 10 years will be dominated by a highly partisan Republican majority in the Legislature because the districts are not competitive. Once every 10 years the Legislature can redistrict its own body. The redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature was overturned by the courts, so there is still another chance to redo the legislative map in a more fair and balanced manner.


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