Behold the beast the Democrats never intended to create: a thrice-elected Republican governor in a swing state with a cult following, appreciated by both the establishment of his party and the conservative base. He’s a governor with an enviable base approval rating who received an even larger share of his own party’s vote in 2014 than 2010. This despite another year of John Doe drama, an unemployment picture that improved but fell short of his promises, a presidential appearance for his opposing Democrat (which had been missing in 2012), and the apparent flare-up between him and the Republican Governors Association head (and another presidential hopeful), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The last bit was almost certainly a ruse, as Marquette polls, over the length of the cycle, found Walker in a tight but comfortable (for Wisconsin) position.
Walker’s gubernatorial opponent, Mary Burke, had a narrow window to making things tougher for Walker but it would have required cracking Walker’s incredible edge in the swing Green Bay-Appleton area and the scattered media markets of the northwest. She failed utterly in both areas, and despite cranking out enormous numbers of votes in Madison and Milwaukee, it mattered naught: she added more than 118,000 more votes to the Democrat’s 2010 performance but Walker added over 130,000 to his own, fueled by sustained growth in most counties outside of those Democratic anchors. Had Walker received the exact same number of votes as he had in 2010, Burke’s “surge” would have still failed to unseat him:
It seems like every new challenge builds the cult of Walker. Every visual overstep by his foes, like the recent protests at his parents’ house, or recent perceived gotchas, simply bring more money and more ground troops to Team Walker.
How did this happen? One horrendous political miscalculation, fueled by raging anger and hopelessness in the face of Act 10: the recall of 2012.
The Silent Majority That Supports Scott Walker
Democrats were lulled into a sense of confidence as 2011 drew to a close, when polls showed Walker losing in just such a stunt. Labor unions, public employee unions, college students, and progressives not living in Madison were united and determined. They were confident. They were on the attack. Perhaps the 2011 Supreme Court election, where conservative Justice David Prosser surprised everyone and survived a challenge from Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, should have been a sign of a “silent majority” waiting to be activated, but with the very real possibility that Act 10 would actually be enforced, they went forward, amassed the signatures, and succeeded in triggering a recall election. And so it began.
Walker’s team kicked into overdrive and hasn’t really stopped, both in GOTV efforts and fundraising. Data-driven and determined, they acquired the list of recall petitioners and used it to modify their voter contact rolls. They opened the doors and welcomed help from any organization willing to join their efforts, and pushed those who could to vote early. Then-Slate reporter Dave Weigel trekked to Wisconsin in May, and came away stunned by the scale of the operation. Walker’s fundraising network is 300,000 donors strong, and believe me, his staff stays in constant contact with each and every one of them (full disclosure: I contributed to the Walker campaign in 2012).
To make matters worse, Democrats picked a candidate with zero appeal in swing areas: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had already lost to the governor in the 2010 election. On the night of the recall primary, my side project, AoSHQDD, was in its infancy, and we were stunned at the tally Walker, facing only token opposition, received. The governor received nearly as many votes as all of the Democratic candidates combined, evidence again of a “silent majority” receptive to defending him. Things never got better for the Democrats as the recall election neared. Early voting returns out of Madison were impressive, but so were those out of Brookfield, the city in Waukesha County that saved Justice Prosser. Polling consistently showed the governor ahead, and he was: the final average found Walker winning by just under seven points, and that’s exactly what happened.
While Madison votes were assured, and his own city’s votes could be counted on, Mayor Barrett failed miserably to connect with the very voters that chose Walker in 2010, defended him in 2012, and continue to stand by him: white blue-collar and middle-class voters in the western and northeastern parts of the state. President Obama held Mitt Romney to a scant lead in Brown County (Green Bay), while Walker carried it by 20 points. The president also easily won the scattered “other” media markets outside of Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay. Walker carried this same region by 12 points.
How massive was Walker’s win? Consider the chart below, showing the total votes received by every Republican presidential candidate from 1984 to 2012. Understand that the recall saw hundreds of thousands of fewer votes cast than the presidential one, yet Walker not only won more votes than Romney in a full third of the counties, he set a record for “votes cast for any Republican candidate” in seven counties. Further, he carried several counties, easily, that haven’t voted for any Republican presidential candidate since Reagan (Trempealeau, Buffalo). We are talking strong levels of support in regions that went against both Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney.
The victory itself was a massive confidence-booster among conservative Republicans disillusioned with their party’s performance in Congress: they finally had a guy who fights. Even after the sting of the presidential race, a sizable portion remembered the man with the “throne of skulls.” It wasn’t lost on many that Walker and President Obama had won by virtually identical margins just six months apart.
The Scott Walker Hate Unified Republicans
The attempt to boot Walker by Wisconsin progressives and labor activists accomplished a rare feat: absolute party unity. But instead of unifying Democrats enough to unseat him, it created a brief moment where libertarian, establishment, Tea Party, and traditional conservative members of the Republican Party united to defend him. He just wasn’t some guy: he was their guy and, damn it, they were not going to let him fall. This unity didn’t end with the recall: Walker received a jaw-dropping 96 percent of the Republican vote in 2014 per the exits, and election analysts have frequently pointed to him as the possible “bridge candidate” between the money and masses within the party. Again, without the recall challenge, would he be enjoying such overwhelming party support as he does now? Would he even be dipping his toe in the water?
The ferocity of the anti-Walker attacks during the recall attempt cannot be understated: no stone was left unturned, no “scandal” or slip of the tongue left unmentioned, and this may only help candidate Walker going into 2016. The Democrats spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours digging, scooping, ad-cutting, and hammering. They threw the kitchen sink at the guy in 2012, threw their neighbor’s sink at him in 2014, and now nobody on the block will let them inside to pee. Out of useful topsoil, what do they do now?
Had the Democrats not targeted Walker with a recall, that massive fundraiser network, the national profile, the party unity, and his highly developed get-out-the-vote team almost certainly wouldn’t exist. He may have still won re-election, but he would be just another Midwestern Republican governor who enacted reforms and faced push-back, not the conservative folk hero of a party longing for a win. He would most likely resemble Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a reformer but hardly a man with a cult following. There would still be plenty of new problems with the governor his opposition could cite, instead of leaving him mostly vetted for 2016.
They shot the king and missed, making a balding, sleepy-eyed executive into a god among a growing horde of followers. That’s bad enough for the Progressive set. In the unlikely event he wins the Republican nomination and the presidency? They struck the match that ignited their own national hell.