US & World

Wisconsin recall seen as trial run for the presidential race

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett participate in a televised debate Thursday, May 31, 2012, in Milwaukee.
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett participate in a televised debate Thursday, May 31, 2012, in Milwaukee.
Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Voters in Wisconsin will decide Tuesday whether or not to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. It's been one of the most expensive statewide races in American history, and the stakes in that election could have national implications, for unions, for deficit hawks, for businesses, even for President Obama's re-election.

The vote over whether to recall Walker is so important, it's drawn millions in outside money and some of the biggest political stars in the country. Now millions of dollars are flowing in, too.

"The dollar figures that were thrown around here are just astronomical in terms of Wisconsin's history," Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

"The old record for [the] governor's race in terms of money raised by a candidate was about $10 million," Johnson says. "And that was set in 2010 by Gov. Scott Walker. He's now raised $31 million in about a year and a half."

Walker has no problem raising money; under Wisconsin laws the incumbent doesn't have to abide by the usual campaign finance contribution limits. Tom Barrett, his Democratic challenger, does.

"People can't give him more than $10,000 a pop, and he's raised about $4 million in the cycle," Johnson says. "Normally we'd be talking about that being [a] record-setting pace, but he's getting killed in Wisconsin, he's getting killed on the airwaves, because the governor has just destroyed all records."

A rally cry for Republicans

"If Walker wins, [the] recall will be the best thing that ever happened to him," Johnson says. He'll be a national figure, not only because he survives but because of the issue he's running on."

"This is an issue that other governors have flirted with, and he's kind of taken it head on," Johnson says. "If he were to survive, it'd be big."

If Walker survives, Republican governors around the country have said it will be a turning point — a referendum in a sense, on whether they, too, can confront public sector unions and make huge spending cuts.

Walker's survival has become a rallying cry for Republican leaders across the country, and some have even rallied to his side. South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley hit the stump last week, and Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal has also come through the state. So has Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and one of the most popular Republicans in the country.

Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has asked his backers to donate to Walker's campaign. Cuccinelli, a rising star in the Republican Party, is running for governor and holds a significant lead in the polls. On Tuesday, he'll be watching Wisconsin closer — quite possibly — than he ever has before.

"Scott Walker's recall election is the second most important election in America this year," he tells NPR's Raz. "The only one more important is the presidential election in November."

It's not just about unions, Cuccinelli says, it's pension problems at the state level and entitlements at the federal level. "It's related to all these types of problems because the theme is the same: We have to make painful changes."

"In order to make sure that our country doesn't go bankrupt it is very important for Scott Walker to win this election," Cuccinelli says, "not just for Wisconsin, but for America."

The White House watches

Obama has been notably absent from the Wisconsin fight. He's endorsed Walker's opponent Tom Barrett, but otherwise, he's been quiet.

But the White House is watching Wisconsin closely, because in many ways, it's a trial run for the presidential race — big money coming in from outside groups, and a referendum on spending.

"I think it's like the Spanish Civil war was to World War II, where both sides got to try out their weapons," NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson tells Raz.

"This is going to be seen as a test case for the power and clout of the superPACs. Walker's raised tremendous amounts of outside money, which he's allowed to do under the law," she says. "So if he wins, I think the message will be the superPACs have a tremendous advantage.

"If he loses, I think will mean even more," she says. "I think it will be a huge boost to the Democrats, to the labor movement, and it'll mean that the superPACs can't buy everything."

But if Walker does survive, what does that mean for Obama? The president won Wisconsin by a pretty healthy margin in 2008, but Republicans swept the state in 2010.

"But the polls show President Obama still has a lead there," Liasson says. "It still is on the list of most people's battleground states; the Republicans believe that if Walker wins, Wisconsin automatically becomes a gettable state for Mitt Romney."

Combine that with the disappointing job numbers out last week, and things don't look good for Obama.

"When you think about this election — which was and is tied, it's a dead heat — and then you think about all of the external factors that could affect it: the economy, jobless rate, Europe, Wisconsin recall, Supreme Court health care decision, and put them all on a list, you can only think of things that will affect this race badly for the president," Liasson says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio>