Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Wisconsin Recall

By Rick Hess — August 10, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Given the result of yesterday’s state senate recall elections in Wisconsin, I’m feeling a lot of sympathy for the labor unions this morning. As the Washington Post‘s Michael Fletcher noted this morning, the fact that Republicans retained control of the state senate is “a major victory for Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a crushing defeat for Democrats and organized labor, which poured millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours into the recall effort.”

Last spring, Walker stirred a heated national debate when he pushed to cut spending, require state employees to contribute more to their health care and retirement plans, and dial back public employee collective bargaining. With the help of a newly Republican state legislature, Walker persevered through sit-ins, legislative hijinks, and vicious personal attacks and claimed a series of big legislative wins. Democrats and labor leaders swore the fight wasn’t over, promising to make an example of Walker and the vulnerable Republican legislators who gave him the votes he needed.

Yesterday, that threat came to a head as Democrats and national labor groups sought to recall six Republican state senators--needing to defeat three of them in order to claim control of Wisconsin’s upper chamber. A big pick-up by the Dems would have been a heavy blow to both Walker and conservatives trying to convince governors elsewhere to challenge public employee unions. The elections quickly took on national import, with outside dollars and campaign pros flooding into the state. In total, more than $33 million was spent on nine recall elections (one Democratic senator staved off a recall challenge a few weeks back, and two more Dems face recall challenges a little later this month).

So, what happened? Republicans won four of the six races, retaining control of the state senate. Notably, in a development that’s producing much teeth-gnashing this morning in teacher union circles, Senate Education Committee Chair Luther Olsen narrowly turned back an aggressive and lavishly funded challenge by state Rep. Fred Clark. Moreover, with chances to pick up seats in the two recall elections that are still to come, Republicans now seem likely to emerge from this maelstrom relatively unscathed.

The outcome is especially bitter for labor, because Wisconsin seemed an ideal place to mount this fight. The state is Democratic terrain, Walker’s personal approval ratings were in the tank by early this summer, and the unions had support from national Democrats, including President Obama. Wisconsin went for Kerry over Bush in 2004, and Obama beat McCain by fourteen points in 2008. Obama’s political operation Organizing for America helped stage the spring protests in Madison, and Obama went out of his way to slam Walker this spring, asserting, “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”

For the Dems, what began with a roar has now ended with a whimper. Back in March, AFT president Randi Weingarten thundered, “The Republican state senators have revealed themselves as people who will say or do anything, and use any tactic necessary, to pass their extreme agenda that attacks working families who are already struggling. Their actions are both reprehensible and cowardly. In stripping teachers, nurses and other hard-working public employees of their right to bargain collectively and their voice in the workplace, Walker has shredded 50 years of labor peace, bipartisanship and democratic process. Walker and the Republicans rammed through a bill that is nothing more than a political payback to their deep-pocketed friends...This fight is only beginning. Walker is losing badly in the court of public opinion. We will work with Wisconsinites to pursue legal channels to fight this unconscionable attack on working families, and to continue the recall effort against those who rammed it through.”

To gauge yesterday’s winners and losers, you only needed to hear the reactions from the two sides. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker could afford to sound magnanimous, saying, “Earlier this evening I reached out to the leadership of both the Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly and State Senate. I shared with them that I believe we can work together to grow jobs.” Meanwhile, a frustrated Democratic Party issued a statement that grouchily declared, “Wisconsin should know that a dark cloud hangs over these important results.”

How big a deal was all this? This morning, Reuters explained, “The Wisconsin recall elections were closely watched for clues to the mood of U.S. voters after the bruising battle in Washington over the national debt, and months before the first primary votes are cast in the 2012 presidential elections.” Reuters noted, “Wisconsin also was important for organized labor, which has seen its clout decline in recent years. Unions poured millions of dollars into the Wisconsin effort.”

The results may deflate Democratic hopes of recalling Walker next year. And, as University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin told the WaPo, “If the Republicans hold the Senate, I think they can see that as a ratification of the policies they adopted.” If Franklin is right, that is likely to have implications this coming year in statehouses far beyond Madison.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.