MILWAUKEE – Five months before Election Day, you’d think there would be no better harbinger about who will win the White House than a contentious statewide vote in a critical battleground state that never moved on from the 2010 campaign.
You’d be wrong.
Yes, there will be tea leaves to read after Wisconsin voters decide Tuesday whether to recall rookie Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a tea party-supported GOP hero who might be the only politician in America to rival President Barack Obama in contentious achievement that inspires loathing among opponents.
A win for Walker and some will say Mitt Romney is sure to be the first GOP candidate to carry Wisconsin since the party’s last winner here: Ronald Reagan in 1984. A loss for Walker will lead others to say the presumptive Republican nominee should give up on the state.
On both sides of the fall campaign, there’s a feeling the outcome of Tuesday’s vote – no matter who wins – will highlight reasons both Obama and Romney should compete hard for Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes. There’s an acknowledgement that neither side is likely to wake up Wednesday with a clear edge, given there’s so much time left before November.
And there’s agreement the Wisconsin recall doesn’t say much at all about the presidential race in the other 49 states.
“It’s a Wisconsin-specific moment, not a national referendum,” said Democratic strategist John Lapp, a veteran senior strategist for several election campaigns in Wisconsin.
Walker arrived in office after his election in 2010 and immediately began an effort to strip union rights from most of the state’s public employees. The former Milwaukee County executive argued that’s what was needed to balance the state’s books, but Democrats and labor leaders saw Walker’s efforts as a way to gut the power of his political opposition.
In the face of massive protests, the new governor ultimately succeeded. Defeated Democrats responded by gathering more than 900,000 signatures to put Walker back on the ballot, where he’ll face the same opponent he beat to win election, Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Should Walker lose, most Republicans agree Obama will have the upper hand in Wisconsin. Romney could decide to concede Wisconsin and anchor his Midwestern strategy in Iowa, where polls show the early race close and where he maintains a network of support from his 2008 and 2012 caucus campaigns.
But despite a generation-long favor toward Democrats, Wisconsin has become a closely watched battleground. George W. Bush lost the state by less than a percentage point in 2000 and 2004, and in 2010 voters picked Walker as they also booted longtime Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold from office in favor of a political novice backed by the tea party.
It’s also a state with an economy rooted in manufacturing, which means a summer of weak jobs reports and a financial collapse in Europe could make a Barrett win on Tuesday all but irrelevant to voters casting a ballot five months later. Voters could also decide to punish Democrats who invested time and money to oust Walker rather than focusing on the economy, especially if it gets worse before Election Day.
“The public gets very frustrated when they see people take their eye off the economy for politics’ sake,” said GOP pollster David Winston.
Recent polls suggest it’s more likely Walker wins. He led Barrett in a Marquette University Law School poll published Wednesday that also found 92 percent of Republican likely voters said they were “absolutely certain to vote” in the recall, while only 77 percent of Democrats said the same.
A Walker victory will push Romney to move Wisconsin from a group of states he plans to watch into the group of states he plans to contest aggressively – even ahead of Romney’s native Michigan, said Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson.
“I definitely think it moves over,” Beeson said.