A Wisconsin surprise?

Six questions and answers about what could happen today, and what it will – and won’t – mean for November

Topics: Opening Shot,

The third gubernatorial recall campaign in American history will finally come to an end today. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker enters today’s vote favored to survive, although there’s some reason to believe his lead has narrowed in the race’s final days. With that in mind, let’s look at what could happen today and what it will – or won’t – mean for November:

Can Democrats actually pull it out? It’s been months since a poll put Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett ahead of Walker, but Democratic optimism comes from two sources: 1) A PPP poll released Sunday night that showed Walker’s lead slipping to just 3 points, 50-47 percent, down from the 7-point spread that a Marquette Law School poll found a few days earlier; and 2) The turnout issue – basically, there’s never been an election like this in Wisconsin before, so there’s more of a chance that actual voter turnout patterns will be different from what forecasters have been anticipating.

If Barrett wins, the collective bargaining law that started all of this goes away, right? Don’t be so sure. One of the interesting features of the campaign has been the secondary role that collective bargaining has played in Democratic messaging. They’ve tried to broaden their pitch and to avoid the impression that Barrett is a vehicle for public employee unions. “Let’s face it, I was not their first choice,” Barrett said in a recent debate with Walker. “The real test of leadership is whether you can say no to your friends.” The Democrat says he’d take a “multifaceted” approach to repealing Walker’s reforms, but his ability to do so could depend on the outcome of some other recall elections on today’s ballot, with Democrats targeting three GOP state senators in an effort to reverse their 17-16 deficit in the chamber.

Is Walker a new national GOP star if he holds on? The answer here should be yes, and surely there’ll be no shortage of Republicans across the country hailing him as a hero for defanging Democratic-friendly unions and living to tell about it. He’d be a natural choice for a prominent spot at the GOP convention in Tampa this summer, and if Mitt Romney doesn’t win this fall, his name would probably be connected with the 2016 conversation. But there’s a catch: As Democrats have been loudly pointing out, there’s an active investigation of possible embezzlement and abuse of taxpayer money in the Milwaukee County Executive’s Office under Walker, who held the post from 2002 to 2010. Walker insists he’s not a subject of the probe, but there seems to be some smoke here. Even in victory, the governor’s troubles won’t necessarily be over.

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Where’s Obama been? The last Democratic president made a high-profile visit on Barrett’s behalf a few days ago, but the current one settled only for a last-minute tweet:

It’s Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I’m standing by Tom Barrett. He’d make an outstanding governor. -bo

That this is the most Obama is willing to do for Barrett is telling. The White House was never enthusiastic about the idea of trying to recall Walker, fearing that it could drain resources, energize Republicans and cause unnecessary headaches in a potential swing state. There’s also the memory of 2010, when Obama made a last-minute trip to Massachusetts in an effort to rescue Martha Coakley’s Senate candidacy. She lost anyway, making it easier for Republicans and the media to frame the result as a repudiation of Obama.

If Walker wins today, does that mean Mitt Romney will win Wisconsin in November? You can expect a lot of talk from Republicans about the state being in play at the presidential level if Walker does prevail. But there’s really not much of a connection here. The same polls that have shown Walker leading have also put Obama ahead, generally by comparable margins. Wisconsin has had some very tight presidential races (specifically in 2000 and 2004), but it clearly leans Democratic at the national level. The margin should be much closer this fall than it was in ’08, when Obama carried the state by 14 points, but that’s a symptom of Obama’s overall slippage with blue-collar and middle-class white voters. With or without the recall, Wisconsin would be a potential swing state – albeit one where Obama remains favored to win.

It really will be over after today, right? Yes. Or maybe not – there’s always the recount possibility.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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