No Slam Dunk in Wisconsin

We don’t know the outcome of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in Wisconsin, of course, but we do know this: Even if labor somehow manages to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker, the result will be nothing like the resounding repudiation that Ohio voters delivered last year in repealing that state’s anti-collective bargaining law pushed by an equally controversial GOP governor, John Kasich. 

Why the difference? Kasich’s bill went beyond Walker’s in banning collective bargaining for cops and fire fighters, which proved a decidedly unpopular position, but that can hardly account for more than a fraction of the difference. Moreover, Wisconsin is generally regarded as a more liberal state than Ohio. Democrats have carried it in every presidential election for the past two decades, while Ohio went Republican as recently as 2004. Wisconsin has a storied progressive history; Ohio has nothing of the kind. Walker’s bill which, like Kasich’s, repealed collective bargaining rights for public employees, brought out unprecedented masses of demonstrators. The response to Kasich’s bill, initially, was a lot less explosive.

But Ohio voters repealed Kasich’s new law last November by a two-to-one margin. No matter how well labor and the Democrats will do tomorrow in Wisconsin, they won’t do remotely that well.

So what gives? One key difference, I suspect, is that the Ohio election was a referendum, in which voters gave a thumbs-up or –down to the law itself, while Wisconsin’s election is a recall, in which voters choose between Walker and a Democrat, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who ran against Walker in 2010 and lost by roughly the same margin that polls show him trailing Walker today. The Walker-Barrett rematch has been about a lot more than the repeal of collective bargaining rights – it’s been about the state’s overall economic performance and a host of other issues, as well as the controversial law that gave it rise. For some voters, it’s also about the propriety of recalling a governor who may have committed political sins but, at least as yet, no indictable crimes. 

The irony here is that in Wisconsin, birthplace of American progressivism, there are no referendums or initiatives. The legislature authorized them in 1914, but that only sent the decision to state voters who, recoiling from tax hikes that the state’s progressive government had enacted, decided to turn them down. In Wisconsin, you can recall a public official, but you can’t repeal a law at the polls. Voters also have to wait a year after the public official first takes office before they can launch a recall effort. And as in not the case in California, which recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2004, there is no up-or-down vote on the recall per se, but a one-on-one contest between the elected official and his opponent – both of whom must prevail in party primary elections before the actual recall is held.

In Ohio, by contrast, labor and the Democrats could and did move immediately to repeal Kasich’s law. No other issues complicted the choice, and the election was held in the same year that the law was passed, not one year later. 

Is it easier to repeal a controversial law than recall a controversial governor? Could well be.

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