MADISON, Wis. - We thought the Wisconsin recall was all about restoring collective bargaining for public employees.
But the Democrats of Wisconsin obviously don't agree.
They made that clear Tuesday when they overwhelmingly rejected Kathleen Falk, the anointed candidate of the public sector unions, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary election. Falk lost by nearly 25 percentage points to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is lukewarm at best on the collective bargaining issue.
That leads us to pose a logical question - Why is the state even bothering with a recall election?
It's becoming clear that the majority of Wisconsin residents have no burning desire to ditch Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker's landmark legislation limiting collective bargaining privileges for public employee unions, including teachers unions.
They see schools and local governments saving millions of dollars at a time when they need it most, and they understand how that's more important than the desire of the unions to get even with Walker.
So now Wisconsin will have a gubernatorial recall election June 5 that has nothing to do with the original reason for the recall effort. Walker and Barrett will be debating traditional issues like job creation and budget priorities, the same issues they debated two years ago in the regularly scheduled election.
Walker beat Barrett in that contest, supposedly earning a four-year term. The recall was supposed to be a union effort to topple Walker and reject Act 10. But the unions couldn't even sell their candidate or agenda to their own Democratic Party.
So we ask once again - Why is the state even bothering with a recall election?
People see the value of Act 10
A year ago the public sector unions seemed to have all the political momentum.
Their members (and a lot of radical weirdos) drew national coverage by storming the state capitol and demanding a repeal of Act 10. They portrayed Walker as a puppet of big business who was trying to break the unions and attack the middle class.
For a while the strategy worked. Walker's approval numbers sagged far below 50 percent, and the unions had little trouble collecting over one million signatures to force a recall election.
But calmer heads started to prevail as the months passed by.
Act 10 survived several legal challenges and went into effect. Public employees were suddenly forced to pay a larger share of their own health insurance and pension costs, saving schools and local governments millions of dollars. School boards and city councils were also empowered to cut other labor costs without having to gain union approval.
Suddenly schools and cities were able to balance their budgets without massive layoffs, program cuts or tax increases, despite sizable cuts in state aid. Citizens started to understand that runaway labor costs had been a major problem for local governments, and Act 10 gave them the ability to address the problem.
That made Falk, the former Dane County administrator, far less attractive to voters. Her major campaign promise was to veto any state budget that did not include an immediate repeal of Act 10. Suddenly that didn't sound like such a great idea.
"Just being the union candidate doesn't get you much in Wisconsin," said John McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette University. "Falk hasn't chosen to campaign to the general public, particularly any independents. There is a small group of people in the middle that adds up to the difference. And they just don't care that much about collective bargaining as an issue."
The unions hurt their own cause along the way. Leaders of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (the state's largest teachers union) angered many Democrats, including many of their own members, with an early endorsement of Falk, even before Barrett and several other candidates entered the race.
Union leaders tried to talk Barrett out of running. They tried to hurt him by pointing out that he asked Walker and the legislature to amend Act 10 to make it applicable to police and fire unions. They accused him of taking too long to sign the recall petition against Walker.
The unions even spent $1 million on a last-minute advertising blitz designed to put Falk over the top.
None of it worked. Barrett cruised to victory Tuesday by a reported 58-35 percent. He even trampled Falk on her home turf, Dane County, 62-31 percent.
Barrett distancing himself from unions?
This morning WEAC and other unions immediately started damage control by trying to suck up to Barrett.
"In this historic recall election, less than a month away, WEAC will support Tom Barrett," WEAC President Mary Bell was quoted as saying. "Educators stand united in their goal to recall the most divisive, anti-worker, anti-education governor in Wisconsin history."
But Barrett may not be willing to smoke the union's peace pipe.
The newly crowned Democratic nominee cancelled a traditional party unity rally that was scheduled for this afternoon in Madison. Party hacks have been making up various excuses, but it seems obvious that Barrett sees no value in rubbing elbows in public with the unions. He probably doesn't appreciate the way he was treated during the primary campaign. He also wants a chance to win next month, and the union brand is not selling at the moment.
Polls show that Barrett's preferred approach to restoring collective bargaining - calling a special session of the legislature and working with the majorityRepublicans - is more popular than Falk's more confrontational strategy.
But even if he can distance himself from the unions, Barrett faces an uphill battle to avoid another general election defeat. Recent polls have put him about five percentage points behind Walker, and campaign finance reports show the governor with much more money to spend over the next few weeks.
Tuesday's election totals are also cause for concern at Barrett headquarters. The Democratic primary was the main attraction Tuesday, drawing most of the interest and media attention. Walker faced only one unknown opponent for the GOP nomination.
But Walker's supporters still made their presence known in big numbers. He drew approximately 626,000 votes, compared to roughly 670,000 for Barrett, Falk and the rest of the Democratic field combined.
Gov. Walker clearly has the political momentum, the public sector unions are swallowing a bitter pill, and Act 10 seems to have a good chance to survive, despite all the ugly efforts to kill it.