Wisconsin is the friendly crucible of America, unfailingly polite and civil — yet seething in division in the privacy of the voting booth. The landslide four years ago for President Obama has been replaced for now by Ronald Reagan 2.0, and the divisions in Wisconsin are evident both in the polls and in the voices of average voters.
Wealthy and working-class white men alike voted overwhelmingly to retain Governor Scott Walker in the nation’s third-ever gubernatorial recall election. As was the case three decades ago when Reagan was the last Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin, nearly 40 percent of union households voted for Walker — even though his stripping of public unions’ collective bargaining rights was what ignited the recall.
John Pagel, a Harley-riding dairy farmer from Kewaunee, east of Green Bay, whose 4,500 cows produce six semi-trailer loads of milk a day, said, “We were digging deeper into debt, and Walker took the shovel away. That’s what strong leaders do.”
Meanwhile, women voted in a slim majority for recall, because of cuts to education and family planning funds, and making it harder for workers to sue over discrimination. Urban dwellers and African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for recall, amid accusations that Walker has abandoned the cities. Pastor Kenneth Wheeler of Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee’s heavily black north side, said, “You always hear of Wisconsin being this great state, this progressive state. I don’t see that right now.”
Having grown up on the north side and seen its continued disrepair last week, I agree with Wheeler. But regardless of the outcome, I am also proud of my home state for providing, in this special display of democracy with presidential-level turnout, an unvarnished update into the struggle for America’s soul.
In the days since the election, Democratic insiders have minimized Walker’s victory by citing his massive spending advantage, a lack of enthusiasm for his opponent among the Democratic base, and some principled voter sentiment against recalls. But the Democrats cannot rationalize the results away, as Walker tapped into economic uncertainty as effectively as Obama did in 2008.
Elections turn on places like Whitefish Bay, a village just north of Milwaukee. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain by 1,168 votes amid 89-percent turnout. In 2010, turnout was lower — though still impressive at 81 percent — and Walker lost to Democrat Tom Barrett by 215 votes. In Tuesday’s rematch, turnout was again 89 percent, and Walker won by 351 votes.
This Republican groundswell was dispiriting to Ruth Wallace, 46, a fundraiser for metro Milwaukee’s Jewish Community Center. Sitting in a Whitefish Bay coffee shop after the election, she said, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. My two daughters will have less rights than me the way it’s going.”
In an adjacent bagel shop, four retirees who regularly meet to shoot the breeze bantered about the results. Walt Dyer and Dick Leslie voted for Walker. Yerachmiel Ben Yitzchak and John Zahorik voted for challenger Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor.
Their disagreements are polite but passionate. When Dyer said Walker relates to common people, Zahorik said, “The guy’s a cold fish.”
When Dyer said unions were too powerful, Zahorik said, “Walker’s message is typical Republican selfishness.”
For better or worse, Walker’s message played into a growing sentiment for fiscal austerity among much of Wisconsin’s electorate. “I went to a business convention in May of 2011, and he got a three-minute standing ovation,” said Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse. “That’s where I got it that, wow, they love him. It’s real.”
Walker’s victory has left many recall supporters deeply unhappy with their fellow Wisconsinites. Particularly disappointed in the results were Joe Duellman and Brian Weisse, Milwaukee public high school teachers attending Barrett’s concession speech. Talking about a biology teacher who has a class of 45 students, Duellman, 29, said Walker’s education cuts “make me sick.” Weisse, 35, said, “I wish people who vilify us would spend one day in my classroom to see what we do. They wouldn’t vote the way they do if they did.”
But they did vote that way, making Wisconsin a new political laboratory in a time of economic turmoil. Democrats and unions went for broke, sure that anger and high turnout would result in Walker’s recall. They instead got a new, riled-up silent majority.