Mitt Who? State Issues, Governor Eclipse Presidential Politics In Wisconsin

Apr 2, 2012
Originally published on April 3, 2012 2:25 pm

Voters in Wisconsin's GOP primary Tuesday are poised to help former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrap up his dogged, well-financed quest for the Republican presidential nomination.

But the winner-take-all primary and Romney's drawn-out battle with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have been overshadowed by the campaign to recall GOP Gov. Scott Walker, whose anti-union efforts since his 2010 election have cleaved the Badger State.

"Everything here is overwhelmed by the recall," says Don Taylor, the influential chairman of the GOP in Waukesha County, the state's most Republican redoubt. "This is the first presidential year that we have not zeroed in on the presidential race."

From Purple — To Red And Blue

It's no wonder.

Walker, who on June 5 will face the winner of a coming special Democratic gubernatorial primary, is presiding over a state often described as "purple" for its stir of Republicans and Democrats.

After more than a year of emotional battles over collective bargaining and budgets, voter identification laws and congressional redistricting, as well as a Walker recall petition drive that collected more than 900,000 signatures, Wisconsin has shed its purple hue.

It's now a red state — and a blue state — with ugly divisions that seem less geographic and more personal. They play out neighbor to neighbor, family member to family member, fueled by talk radio and special money that has poured into Wisconsin since Walker and Republicans took control of the governor's office and the state Legislature.

"It's been a very difficult state to be in," Cathy Waller, who runs the Waukesha County Republican office in suburban Milwaukee, said recently, choking back tears as she spoke about recall fever and accompanying animosity that has gripped the state.

"I can't stand it," she said. "It's got to stop."

The pace of local political news, however, continues to be so relentless that "even bloggers can't keep up," says liberal blogger Lisa Muxworthy.

"Every day," she says, "several major things happen." And they have had little, if anything, to do with Romney, Santorum and the GOP presidential nomination.

No End In Sight

The months of partisan intrastate warfare, while exhausting for many, have energized the bases of both parties in a state expected to be a presidential battleground in November.

In downtown Waukesha, a handsome collection of two- and three-story stone and brick buildings from the early 1900s, Democrats have been working on voter lists and contacts in four offices: two recall-related efforts, the local Democratic Party office and the pro-Obama Organizing For America shop.

Republicans are in a strip mall a few miles away, making their own contacts in a suite of offices, and in a cavernous call center that has accommodated big rallies and get-out-the-vote efforts. Romney recently opened his temporary headquarters a few doors away.

"I don't think the Democratic Party was ready in 2010," Bruce MacIntyre, a retired biology and physics professor, said during a recent evening coffee klatch at Sprizzo Gallery Caffe in downtown Waukesha.

Added Mary O'Herron, a retired rural letter carrier: "But Scott Walker has organized us."

At the Republican headquarters, Waller sees a similar dynamic on the GOP side.

"In my 10 years here, I've never seen anything like this so early — energized people, and a great base that's started working now," she said.

All of this has set up not only a battle royale in June for the governor's office, but another in the fall when control of the state Legislature (not to mention the White House) will be up for grabs.

"My opinion is that there are virtually no undecided voters left in the state," Taylor, the Waukesha GOP chairman, said during lunch across the street from his family-founded-and-operated Waukesha State Bank.

"We're not trying to convince anyone," he said. "Our focus is trying to get people to the polls."

Walker Challenges: Voting Booth And Investigation

Four Democrats are vying to take on the governor in June. They include Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in a close race in 2010, and Kathleen Falk, a union favorite. They'll compete in a May 8 primary.

Three Republican legislators also face recall; a fourth targeted for recall has opted not to run.

Walker also continues to be shadowed by a grand jury investigation into his time as Milwaukee County executive. A half-dozen of his former aides have already been charged in the "John Doe" probe, which focuses on allegations that political work was done on the taxpayers' dime while Walker served as county executive.

Walker recently set up his own legal defense fund, while asserting publicly that he has been cooperating with the investigation. He's also defending the state's economic performance during his time in office. Though Wisconsin's unemployment rate has declined to 6.9 percent from a high of 9.2 percent as recently as January 2010, it had the worst job creation performance in the nation in 2011.

Taylor insists he's not worried about how Walker will fare in June.

"I'm confident because he has faith in the Lord," Taylor said. "Scott is very close to the Lord. I love the Lord, too, but I don't think I could be as fearless as Scott."

High Stakes, Spotlight On State

Waller and activists on the other side of the political divide know how high the political stakes are in Wisconsin, which is awash in big national money bankrolling both pro- and anti-Walker efforts.

"We understand that what's happening here is an example for both sides," Waller says. "We understand that however this state goes, so goes the rest of the country."

Walker last year pushed through what he called a "budget repair bill" that eliminated most public-sector union collective bargaining rights. In doing so he became both a national conservative icon and the bete noire of unions representing teachers and state workers hardest hit by the new law. (Walker exempted firefighters and law enforcement workers from the collective bargaining rollbacks.)

"The Koch brothers think they have a protege in Walker," says Kristin Hansen, a volunteer for President Obama's re-election effort in Waukesha County, referring to the wealthy anti-union industrialists who are big financial backers of the governor and the Tea Party movement.

"There's a Republican attack on Wisconsin," says Hansen, who works for the Wisconsin affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. "You try not to get paranoid, but they're attacking unions here, voter identification laws, women's rights."

"But we don't feel helpless," she said. "The organization surrounding the recall has meant that hundreds of people are involved who probably weren't involved before."

The Republican presidential primary, meanwhile, has failed to ignite the imagination of local party stalwarts.

"I do detect among my conservative friend passive support for whoever gets the nomination," Taylor, the county GOP chairman, said. But it will be the question over who will retain, or gain, control of the state Legislature that will animate the fall campaign season.

"I expect lots of enthusiasm and enormous turnout," Taylor said. "And, as a sideline, they're going to vote for president."

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