Some lessons from Wisconsin
By Mike Andrew
“We wanted a different outcome,” said AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka about the failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, “but Wisconsin forced the governor to answer for his efforts to divide the state and punish hard-working people. Their resolve has inspired a nation to follow their lead and stand up for the values of hard work, unity, and decency that we believe in.”
The June 5 special election in Wisconsin disappointed working people and our friends all over the country. But if we really are going to “stand up for the values of hard work, unity, and decency” now, and especially in the November election when so much is at stake, disappointment is not enough.
We will need to draw the right lessons from the Wisconsin experience, and then get to work to change the way we operate.
So why did Scott Walker defeat the recall by a handy 53% to 46% margin?
The most obvious factor contributing to Walker’s win was money, what Trumka called “a flood of secret corporate cash distorting our democracy.”
Walker raised and spent $30.5 million dollars, two-thirds of it from out-of-state sources. His Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, raised only $4 million, with 74% of that total coming from Wisconsin donors.
The simple fact is that Scott Walker spent 88% of the money to get 53% of the vote. Another way of saying that is, Walker spent $23 for each vote he received, while Barrett spent only $3.47 per vote.
But the reality is even worse, because the $34.5 billion spent by the two campaigns does not include so-called independent expenditures and issue ads paid for primarily by out-of-state billionaires. The Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and Joe Rickets spent heavily to support Walker, as did business groups, and the National Rifle Association.
Once all this additional spending is included, total spending in this race could be more than double the $34.5 billion number, with Walker and his business allies outspending Barrett by an even wider margin.
The record spending was yet another consequence of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which invalidated Wisconsin laws prohibiting independent expenditure campaigns by corporations and unions.
To cope with the flood of corporate money, the three largest public sector unions, the NEA, AFSCME, and SEIU, channeled at least $2 million from their treasuries and super PACs to two Wisconsin-based independent expenditure groups.
The AFT, UFCW, UAW, and the Teamsters also dipped into their treasuries for the Wisconsin recall.
Even the largest unions cannot play a money game and win, however, and they certainly could not keep pace with Walker’s super-rich backers.
For working people and our unions to have a chance, we have to rely on mass mobilization to overcome the money advantage of the other side.
Central labor councils in Wisconsin and around the country, including here in the Puget Sound region, mobilized get-out-the-vote phonebankers who tirelessly worked shifts calling Wisconsin voters to drive as big a vote as possible.
“Young and old, union and non-union, people came in every day to do whatever they could to help. Thousands volunteered, often for two shifts in a row,” one volunteer said.
While no one can fault the thousands of volunteers who worked on the Wisconsin recall campaign, they may have been working a strategy that hampered the goal of removing Walker rather than helping.
Focusing on turning out votes from so-called “likely voters” means reaching only a narrow slice of the electorate. It means that voters identified as “unlikely” are largely ignored, particularly the working poor who are sometimes union members themselves, and would certainly be allies of unions.
Finally, to win an election in the face of big money, we need a message that resonates with voters because it speaks to their real experiences and needs, and a candidate who will carry that message.
Tom Barrett, unfortunately, did not fit the bill.
Although Walker’s attack on workers’ collective bargaining rights was the thing that set the whole recall campaign in motion, Barrett hardly mentioned collective bargaining. He said little or nothing about balancing the state budget by taxing the wealthy and corporations, or the need to invest in education, social services, and infrastructure. Despite high unemployment, there was little or no talk of the need to create jobs.
Barrett was also unpopular with many public sector workers because of his own cuts and other austerity measures as Mayor of Milwaukee.
As a result, some 38% of union members voted for Walker, exit polls showed. The same polls showed that 54% of self-identified independent voters supported Walker, and that even 52% of voters who said their financial situation had gotten worse under Walker voted for him.