Wisconsin Recall: Process Aids Walker


Note: This article is cross-posted from Rhodes Cook’s political blog.

At this point, the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election June 5 appears to be Republican incumbent Scott Walker’s to lose.

While the bête noire of liberal Democrats and organized labor for his efforts to curtail the collective bargaining rights of state public employees, Walker has virtually unanimous support within the Republican Party. He has a large financial advantage over his Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had to weather a primary May 8 against a labor-preferred opponent. And for good measure, Walker has already defeated Barrett once for the governorship – in 2010.

Yet Walker’s biggest asset may be Wisconsin’s recall process itself. When California voters removed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from office in October 2003, his future was totally tied to an up and down vote on Davis personally. There was not the diversion of an alternative candidate, with his or her own foibles. California voters were simply asked whether they wanted to recall the incumbent, Yes or No, making Davis’ personality and record the total focus of the recall.

In this straightforward vote, the incumbent was removed by the decisive margin of 55% to 45%, with a statewide plurality for the “Nos” of nearly 1 million votes. Once Davis’ fate was determined, the second part of the ballot became pertinent – the choice of his successor. There, voters were faced with 135 or so names of all partisan flavors, unculled by a primary.

Choices ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, from political wannabes to celebrities of various luster (think Arianna Huffington, Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman and former Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth). In this eclectic field, action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a Republican, emerged the winner with nearly half of the vote.

Walker can thank his lucky stars that he does not have the California recall method to contend with. Recent polls have shown the Wisconsin governor with a small, but clear-cut edge over Barrett, with few undecided voters yet to convince. In short, Walker versus Barrett is a contest the incumbent is likely to win. But if the match up instead was Walker versus Walker, who knows what the outcome might be.