Tuesday’s recall election in Wisconsin is the culmination of a long political campaign waged by the left to reverse the results of the watershed 2010 election, and to prevent reforms that might be imitated elsewhere. These included: tax cuts for job-creating businesses, spending reductions to turn deficits into surplus, and collective bargaining reforms that freed state and local governments from the onerous cost of union benefits.
As important as the 2010 election was nationwide, it was even more dramatic in Wisconsin. It brought Gov. Scott Walker to office, but also swept aside liberal stalwart Sen. Russell Feingold and ended the career of veteran Democrat Rep. David Obey. It boosted Rep. Paul Ryan to the head of the House Budget Committee, and eventually saw Wisconsin’s Reince Priebus take over the Republican National Committee.
Gov. Walker’s first move was to declare the state “open for business,” hanging a sign to that effect on the Wisconsin-Illinois border–a sign of Walker’s determination to attract jobs fleeing Illinois and other union-dominated, high-tax and high-spending Midwestern states. By lowering taxes on businesses and balancing the state budget by focusing on spending cuts, Walker sought to transform the state’s economy and its political culture.
Next came Walker’s infamous collective bargaining reforms–legislation that ended the privilege enjoyed by public sector unions to sit on both sides of the negotiating table when wrestling with state and local government over employee benefits and work rules. The reforms also made union dues optional for public employees. (Shrewdly, Walker exempted public safety employees from the reforms–a lesson that Ohio’s Republican leaders failed to learn when their own collective bargaining reforms were defeated.)
As Walker would later point out, the end of mandatory dues was what worried union bosses the most. Teachers’ unions were also scared to lose their monopoly over the health insurance market in school districts state-wide. But they quickly framed their self-interest as “workers’ rights,” and made their fight against Walker into a national cause.
It is almost difficult to remember just how many battles the unions fought–and lost–en route to attempting to remove Walker from office. First there was the dramatic standoff at the state capitol in Wisconsin, which began when Democrats literally fled the state to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to pass Walker’s collective bargaining bill. The unions brought crowds of demonstrators–including children dragged from school, and physicians handing out fake doctors’ notes–to lay siege to the state legislature.
When the law passed, Democrats sought to overturn it in the courts on procedural and other grounds. That led to the first electoral battle–a close election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court between incumbent Republican David Prosser and Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg. Kloppenburg declared victory, but turned out to have lost when a local Democrat official discovered over 7,000 missing votes. A recount confirmed the result.
The summer of 2011 saw the first recall effort, in which Democrats sought to swing the balance of power in the state senate by toppling six Republican incumbents. They just needed to win three of the six contests, but managed only two–turning broadcaster Ed Schultz’s live victory rally-style results coverage on MSNBC into an on-air funeral.
The next battle was the recall election itself. Democrats boasted that they had obtained one million signatures–far more than necessary–to recall Gov. Walker. But as Walker’s reforms began to have their effect–new job creation, budget surplus, lower tax burdens, and (ironically) fewer layoffs for public employees–voter enthusiasm for the anti-Walker cause diminished rapidly, and radically. In their own primary, Democrats spurned union-backed Kathleen Falk for Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett–Walker’s opponent in the 2010 race, who spent the interim putting Walker’s collective bargaining reforms to good use.
And so we arrive at the recall election itself–a contest Democrats have called a dry run for the 2012 presidential election, but which they have already lost. No longer running on collective bargaining, they have made voter ID and the so-called “war on women” their top priorities. President Barack Obama, wisely, is keeping his distance. However, he can no longer keep what has happened in Wisconsin from happening everywhere.