Winners and losers in recall 2012

By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project Director.

As the dust settles on Wisconsin’s tumultuous recall elections, let’s acknowledge some of the winners and losers with appropriate commendations:

Fundraising champion: Gov. Scott Walker. Whether Wisconsin’s embattled Republican governor could have survived the recall without raising and spending record amounts of campaign cash, most of it from other states, is something we’ll never know. Walker did rake in huge sums, and he did prevail.

Walker raised more than $32 million through June 4, including reported late contributions, compared to Democratic challenger Tom Barrett’s $4.6 million. Walker’s war chest, alone, was nearly twice as large as what he and Barrett spent together in the 2010 election.

Truest weathervane: Political polls. Democrats reacted indignantly to a Marquette poll showing Walker with a seven-point lead heading into the election, saying their own polls indicated a dead heat. But even a late-breaking report casting doubt on Walker’s claims of full cooperation with the John Doe criminal probe did not keep this prediction from proving eerily on the mark.

It’s getting to where actual voting seems increasingly perfunctory, since the pollsters have it all figured out in advance.

Harshest fall from grace: Public employee unions. Walker evidently chose the right group to pick on. The liberal standard-bearer Mother Jones magazine ran an article about organized labor’s support for Democrat Kathleen Falk under the headline, “Shadowy WI Group Bankrolled by Big Labor Unions,” and Barrett talked up the fact that he wasn’t the unions’ preferred candidate.

Perhaps you dreamed, as the labor song goes, you saw Joe Hill last night? Dream on.

Strongest correlation: Spending and winning. Republicans outspent Democrats in five of the six recall races, as of last reporting. They won the sole Senate race in which the Democrat spent more — Jerry Petrowski over Donna Seidel — and lost just one in which they led in spending. That was the race in which Democratic challenger John Lehman, according to unofficial returns, narrowly bested GOP incumbent Van Wanggaard, giving Democrats control of the state Senate.

Most quixotic quest: Campaign finance reform. Once upon a time, candidates for offices like governor would pledge to reform how elections are financed, only to do nothing once elected. Now they don’t even bother to make these empty promises.

A coalition of 18 nonprofits, including the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG), Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, held a press conference on May 31, less than a week before the election. They called on Walker and Barrett to back four specific campaign finance reforms, including additional disclosure for campaign contributions and political advertising.

More group reps than reporters were present, and the challenge drew almost no media attention. Quizzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Barrett’s staff offered general support for campaign finance reform without specifically addressing the proposals at hand, while Walker’s side evaded the question altogether, saying the governor was focused on creating jobs.

“There has been a stunning silence about what is going to be done about the carcinogens that have been unleashed on the body of democracy that is now been turned into a full-blown raging cancer,” intoned Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign at the press conference. “Who is talking about treatment? Who is talking about a cure?”

Not the politicians.

Most unnecessary editorial: The Wisconsin State Journal. The paper ran a finger-wagging May 20 offering, “Endless recalls hurt Wisconsin,” advising state residents to accept the June 5 election results and end “the recall circus.”

Um, the constitutional amendment allowing recalls in Wisconsin, passed in 1926, has been used just four times prior to 2011 against state lawmakers and never before against a statewide elected official. Recalls are not easy: Walker’s foes needed to gather more than a half-million signatures, and recall efforts against several lawmakers fell short.

Clearly, recalls in Wisconsin are and always will be extremely uncommon. Thank goodness for that.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for  Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.


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