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Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012

The Walker Recall

What's next?

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Last week, opponents of Gov. Scott Walker and five of his Republican allies filed almost 2 million signatures to trigger recall elections in the coming months.

So what happens next?

Potential candidates, campaign strategists and grassroots activists on both sides of the political divide are trying to figure out just how to navigate this uncharted territory.

Here's what the insiders are saying about these historic recalls.

The Electorate

Walker has polarized the state into two camps: those who hate him and those who love him. Just about all reliable polling shows that the two sides are more or less evenly matched, with Walker's negatives slightly higher than his positives. About 5% to 8% are undecided, a very small amount so early in the campaign. The recalls will be about reaching and mobilizing those undecided voters.

In a Wispolitics.com discussion last Wednesday, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin (currently polling for Democratic candidate for governor Kathleen Falk) said that the millions of dollars Walker has already spent on advertising hasn't changed his level of support.

"It's frozen," Maslin said.

Republican pollster Gene Ulm (polling for U.S. Senate candidate Mark Neumann), speaking at the same event, predicted that Walker's support would remain in the mid-40s until his Democratic opponent is declared.

"This is going to be a choice between two people," Ulm said.

Both pollsters claimed that enthusiasm was on their side.

The intensity gap that favored Republicans in 2010 will be replaced by "anger," Maslin said. That anger will be directed at Republicans, who are "self-branding" themselves as the party in favor of the 1%.

But Ulm countered that the "architecture" shaping the recall is what's taking place nationally, and that Republicans have as much intensity as they did in 2010.

He also said that anger was important and would work in the Republicans' favor.

"Anger drives turnout," Ulm said.

At the grassroots level, however, Walker has served to energize and organize his opponents. Not only have a million people signed on to oust him, but they've captured the attention of the media here and nationally.

Republicans tried to counter that with a pro-Walker rally in Wauwatosa on Saturday. But despite GOP headliners like Neumann, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, Assembly Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald and recall target state Sen. Van Wanggaard, the pro-Walker forces only attracted fewer than a thousand supporters to the rally. Walker himself was a no-show.

That said, Republican campaign strategist Brian Nemoir, who ran Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's successful re-election campaign last year, told the Shepherd that Walker would earn enough votes to survive the recall.

"There is an engaged electorate out there that does not upset press conferences, that doesn't do laps around the Capitol instead of going to their jobs, does not make personal threats against elected officials, that on the day of the election, does the very most important thing—votes," Nemoir said.

One hurdle that anti-Walker voters will be more likely to face is the new voter ID law, which Walker and legislative Republicans passed last year. The law is currently being challenged in both state and federal court. If it holds, the new law will disproportionately affect historically Democratic voters—students, minorities, the poor and the elderly—while leaving Republican voters relatively untouched.

That means Democrats and their allies will have to launch a huge voter education effort at the same time they're promoting their candidates for office.

Timing Is Everything—Or Not

Even without a recall, Wisconsin has a crowded election calendar. In February, local primaries will be on the ballot; in April, the presidential primary will be held, along with the general election for local races. The partisan primaries will be held in August and the general election will be held on Nov. 6.

Currently, the Government Accountability Board (GAB) is vetting the recall signatures. By law, the GAB is given 31 days to complete this work, though it can apply for an extension of time. GAB officials have said they will likely need at least 60 days to finish the work. That means the earliest a recall election—either a primary or a general election—could be held is late April. Legal challenges could delay it well into the summer. Tactically, the Democrats do not want the election to coincide with the Wisconsin April general elections because that is also the date of the presidential primary. Since there will probably still be a contested Republican presidential primary race, that will bring out more Republican voters.

Even so, the recall is the race to watch this year, no matter when it will be held.

The recalls will likely drown out news coverage of local races and make advertising rates go through the roof. That's great for big media outlets like Journal Communications, though if the six recalls are held on or near another election, it could make non-recall candidates re-think their plans for TV and radio advertising.

Timing could also affect turnout. If the recall election is pushed back to August and coincides with Wisconsin's partisan primary election, there likely will be a larger Republican turnout because of the contested Republican U.S. Senate seat. Although last summer's recalls had high voting rates, an off-season recall election—with a shorter amount of time for absentee balloting—could dampen participation rates of occasional voters who only cast a ballot during big elections but provide the margin of victory for successful candidates.

Timing could also affect Walker's profile. If the state's economy finally turns around after six straight months of job losses, he'll try to take credit for it. He can also spend the extended campaign season raising money from wealthy Republican donors and raise his national profile. But the ongoing John Doe investigation—which has already ensnared his top aide and longtime friend, Tim Russell, and others—could result in more bad news for the governor. And if the state's job prospects continue to worsen, he'll have to own that, too.

Where Was Walker?

At the same time his opponents were delivering a million signatures for his recall in the midst of a snowstorm, Walker was in New York to fund-raise from the disgraced former CEO of AIG and sit for friendly interviews with FOX & Friends, FOX News' Greta Van Susteren and Rush Limbaugh. The governor argued that the recalls were not about him—nothing personal at all—and that out-of-state union bosses were driving the recall.

Walker, following what's become the party line, has tried to downplay the significance of the historic recall drive.

"As I predicted four or five months ago, there will be a recall election," he told FOX & Friends.

Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said that last week's fund-raising trip had been a "long-standing" commitment on the governor's calendar, which is why he was out of the state on the same day the recall petitions were handed in. She refused to comment on his activities in New York, how he traveled to and from Wisconsin, or whether it was wise for the governor to raise funds from a discredited Wall Street CEO on the same day that a historic grassroots movement had organized against him.

As the target of a recall, Walker is able to raise unlimited funds until the recall election is called, an advantage not shared by his Democratic opponent, whoever that may be.

Walker raised more than $12 million in 2011, including almost $5 million in December.

Last year, Walker began running ads with surrogates touting the benefits of his reforms. Those claims have been debunked or discredited. During the holidays, his wife and sons were featured in a warm and fuzzy appeal to working together to solve differences. Walker's latest ad features him speaking directly to the camera about the benefits of his policies, even though his statements don't match reality.

In the commercial, Walker says he's balanced the budget; in reality, his administration has told the federal government that it will have a budget deficit, its excuse for kicking BadgerCare recipients off of the program. In the commercial, Walker says that Wisconsin is adding jobs. Last week, employment data showed that Wisconsin has lost private-sector jobs for the past six months, every month since Walker's budget has been in effect.

Matthews said she couldn't comment on the discrepancies between Walker's claims and the employment data or the budget-deficit questions.

"Those questions deal with policy," Matthews said.

Campaign strategists say that featuring Walker so heavily in his ads is a double-edged sword. The governor polarizes the electorate like no other, so blanketing the airwaves will remind both sides how much they either love or hate him. One longtime Democratic strategist wondered why Walker would run a "closer" ad—one that has the candidate talking directly to the voters—that's typically aired during the last few weeks of a campaign when the recall election is months in the future. That said, Walker's positive message, played incessantly during the past few months, is intended to make undecided voters more likely to trust him and his controversial policies. Outside interest groups that support him will run the negative ads against his opponent. Walker's upbeat ads will air long before the Democrats introduce their candidates to the electorate and try to consolidate support.

The Democratic Primary

As of this writing, only former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) have said they'll run for governor. But expect more to follow.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate said a primary was a positive development, since it allows voters to select the candidate and it decreases the amount of negative ads targeting Democrats from Walker and outside interest groups. Already, the conservative Club for Growth has sponsored a billboard aimed at Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch—also the target of a recall—has criticized Falk for being hand-selected by "the cabal of Madison liberal Democrats and Big Government Union Bosses."

A primary denies Walker—at least for a few weeks or months—the ability to get into that one-on-one matchup that will determine the race.

"Scott Walker won't have any one person to shoot at," Tate said.

But Nemoir said a primary would hurt the Democrats.

"I get the strategy of focusing on the recalls during the recall," Nemoir said. "But the failure to answer the candidate question? It borders on the incredulous."

Steve Eichenbaum, the advertising guru who developed Russ Feingold's breakthrough ads in the 1990s, said Democrats need to field a candidate who has an imaginative, positive and fresh message that can break through the millions of dollars of ads that will be aired before the election.

"They can't just get into a contest where they do the same kind of ads that the Republicans do because they're going to get outspent," Eichenbaum said.

Instead, Democrats need to make an emotional appeal and explain that they're on the side of the voters, not the elite who contribute to—and get perks and protection from—Walker.

"If the Democrats don't make that point and don't make people see that they're on the same team and nobody's happy right now except the 1%, then they will have failed in their mission," Eichenbaum said. "Just because they've got a recall, I don't consider it any sort of done deal that he's out of office. If he survives the recall, that could be even more dangerous."