Republicans have hung onto the Wisconsin governorship held by Scott Walker, and challenger Tom Barrett has gone down to defeat.
Now get ready to endure an onslaught of overwrought and probably wrong-headed assertions about what that means.
Tea Party types will see it as a validation of scorched-earth politics. Political pundits will read it as a bellwether for the coming fall elections. Political strategists will read it as a sign that pouring money into negative advertising will win the day (of course, that third group will be right).
What they will all miss, however, is the message that I think Wisconsinites are really sending tonight.
I don’t mean the Walker true believers, or the many voters who fully supported the recall and pulled the lever for Barrett. I mean that critical sliver of voters in the middle.
I believe that a critical mass of Wisconsin voters either stayed home or voted against Barrett not because they necessarily endorse Walker’s anti-union policies. I think many of them were more concerned with the fairness and propriety of ousting a sitting governor before his term has ended, thereby stripping the voters who elected Walker in 2010 of their duly earned victory.
I have heard compelling arguments in favor of recall, but in the end I have not been sold. In retrospect it is hard to see the 2003 ouster of California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, as a just result. Similarly, I think that many Wisconsin, including a good number who find Walker’s tactics distasteful, might have been reticent to jettison him before his term ends.
As evidence of that, I would point to La Crosse County. Tonight’s returns there, as recorded on the New York Times web site, are partial, with only 58 percent of precincts reporting. But Walker is winning there, 50-49 percent.
It’s close, barely leaning Walker’s way. But this is in a county that went 61-37 percent for Obama in 2008. Even if Barrett pulls out a late victory in that county, some overenthusiastic Republicans will read this reversal as a sign that Obama’s fortunes in that county—one of Wisconsin’s more liberal bastions—have been reversed, and see that as a tremendously good sign for Romney in November.
But I’d remind them that, just one year ago, voters in that county successfully recalled Republican state Sen. Dan Kapanke by a whopping 57-43 percent margin, helping to send Democrat Jennifer Shilling to the state house. And the issues then were precisely the same issues that voters took up today in Wisconsin, though the anger was more fresh.
Tonight’s results suggest to me that people are thinking about this recall in a different light than they considered Kapanke’s ouster.
Dumping a sitting state senator is serious business. Dumping a sitting governor—even one some of them might see as a villain—is an order of magnitude more serious.
In Winnebago County, the results are even more decisive. With 92 percent of precincts counted, Walker leads in that county by a 56-42 percent margin. This is the same county that recalled GOP state Sen. Randy Hopper last year in favor of Democrat Jessica King, by a 51-49 percent margin.
Is this a sign that the tide has turned in Winnebago County, that it is now safely in the Walker camp? People will be tempted to see it that way, particularly because Randy Hopper was almost ingenious in the way he self-destructed. But I have to believe that to see it that way is to see things in the wrong light.
I really believe that a critical mass of voters concluded that taking a sitting governor out before his constitutional term had ended—regardless of how egregious and stealthy his policies might have been—was simply, in the end, the wrong thing to do.