Steven Libbey’s passion for Republican Governor Scott Walker was bigger than the huge “Stand With Walker” lawn sign in front of his website design business. Libbey called himself a “common-sense Wisconsinite,” criticizing massive public spending while being a fundraiser for an iconic Milwaukee public institution, its domed horticultural conservatory.
He had swung from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. But he said he voted for Walker in 2010 because organized labor was “fleecing the state” for very costly benefits. He thinks Walker came through by scaling back bargaining rights for public unons. With Walker facing a recall election on Tuesday, Libbey said he did not want to return to the old days.
“Wisconsin was on the path to bankruptcy,” Libbey said. “I didn’t believe Walker would really balance the budget like he said he would when he was running for election, but he did. I don’t think anyone thought it was possible. I don’t want to go back to where we throw thousands of dollars of health care and pensions at people instead of creating jobs. I would support Walker for higher elected office should he be so moved. Walker is a less polished, younger Ronald Reagan.”
Sentiments like Libbey’s in one of Wisconsin’s biggest suburbs are why the outcome of Tuesday’s vote to recall Walker is so difficult to predict, despite the best efforts of labor groups. In visiting my home state this week, I have been struck by the fervor on both sides of the recall — and by how both sides see Wisconsin, with its strong tradition of progressive Democrats and moderate Republicans, as an opportunity for the right wing to consolidate its emerging power.
Waukesha is a place with a solid Republican electorate and unpredictable enthusiasm from independents. In the 2008 presidential election, Waukesha County cast 145,152 votes for Republican John McCain and 85,339 for Barack Obama. Two years later, it gave Walker 134,608 votes but only 52,684 to his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — a much more severe defeat.
One Democrat who understands Waukesha is former mayor Larry Nelson. When he won in 2006, he defeated a big-spending, Republican-backed rival by impressing voters with his 30 years as a middle-school teacher and several years of consensus-building as an alderman. Nelson thinks Walker should be removed, but respects the governor for powers of persuasion that, ironically, evoke those of Obama.
“I disagree with the governor on a lot of his policies, but one cannot deny that he is a bold leader who is carrying out an agenda that he strongly believes in,” Nelson said at a coffee shop. “It seems odd for me to say this, but for those independents or swing voters who are looking for leaders who aren’t afraid to take chances and take on the status quo, I think you can make an argument that that’s something Governor Walker and the president have in common.” (Nelson was quick to distinguish Obama’s attempts to compromise with Congress from Walker’s aggressive approach, which has made him a darling of the right.)
In Tuesday’s election, Walker faces Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, once again. While Walker touts his endorsement by the newspaper in Barrett’s own city, Barrett boasts that he is close in polls, despite being outspent by Walker 10 to 1. While complaining that Walker is a national “Petri dish” for the Tea Party and the far right, Barrett brought in former President Clinton, who warned at an outdoor rally Friday that a Walker victory would give license to the far right to run a “divide and conquer” campaign all over the nation against unions and voting rights.
Meanwhile, Walker brought in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, another rising GOP star, who also boasts of taking on the unions. Their final debate dissolved into charges by Barrett that Walker was running “Willie Horton” ads about crime. Walker cast Milwaukee as a failing city.
Even if Walker wins, the state isn’t lost for Democrats. Last week, a Marquette University Law School poll that found Walker leading Barrett by 7 points also had Obama leading Mitt Romney by 8 points. And yet the erosion of Wisconsin’s middle ground seems undeniable on the ground, and there are no signs that the state is ready to heal anytime soon.