Forty-nine minutes after the polls closed in Wisconsin on June 5, Scott Walker heard the news: He was the first governor to have been elected twice in one term. Exit polls broadcast by the media had suggested a dead heat with challenger Tom Barrett. “In your mind, you get yourself psyched up for a long night,” Walker recalled in an interview with The Weekly Standard. But less than an hour later, R.J. Johnson, Walker’s top strategist, gave him a hug and told Walker and his wife that NBC had called the race. “I looked at Tonette and said, ‘Thank God it’s over.’ ”
Walker’s wife wasn’t relieved—yet. “That can’t be,” she said repeatedly in disbelief before being convinced when someone switched the channel to confirm the news.
Walker’s victory brought to an end a rancorous struggle over the power of public employee unions that had consumed the state for 16 months and made him a leading spokesman of conservative reformers. In his victory speech, Walker hailed the results as a vindication of courageous political leadership. He then urged Wisconsinites to heed the better angels of their nature, as he announced a bipartisan bratwurst and beer summit with the state legislature at the governor’s mansion.
But so raw were emotions that even in victory the mere mention of Barrett drew loud boos from some in the crowd. “No, no, no, no,” Walker said, chastening them. “The election is over. It’s time to move Wisconsin forward.” Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, encountered even stronger emotions at his Election Night party, where he was slapped in the face by one of his supporters for conceding too quickly.
When all the votes were finally counted, Walker had beaten Barrett 53 percent to 46 percent—a one-point improvement on his margin of victory over Barrett during the historic Republican wave in 2010. If Walker had received the same number of votes that he did in 2010, he would have lost the recall. Barrett increased his 2010 haul by 158,000 votes, but Walker gained an additional 206,000. He couldn’t have hoped for a more decisive victory.
“It’s still pretty surreal,” he said the day after the election. “I’m glad I can get back to work.”
The recall ended up being largely a referendum on Walker’s policy of balancing the budget by curbing the power of government unions, despite Barrett’s best efforts to change the subject. To the extent that Barrett’s campaign had a focus, it was an ongoing investigation of former Walker aides accused of engaging in political activities on public time. Nine out of 10 voters who favored the law limiting collective bargaining for public employees voted for Walker, 9 out of 10 who opposed the changes voted for Barrett, according to exit polling.
The result was far from inevitable. A year ago Barrett probably would have won a referendum on Walker’s reforms. In March 2011, only two months into Walker’s term, public opinion had turned sharply against the governor and his policies. Walker’s approval rating dropped to the 40s, and polls showed Barrett beating Walker in a rematch. Even as Democratic Wisconsin state senators entered their third week of hiding in Illinois to block a vote on Walker’s budget bill, with protesters occupying the capitol building, a Rasmussen poll showed voters supported Democrats over Walker 52 to 44 percent. Walker’s policy was even more unpopular: Voters opposed the attempt to “weaken the collective bargaining rights of state employees” 57 percent to 39 percent, according to Rasmussen.
Fast-forward to late May 2012, and the numbers had flipped. Voters favored “limiting collective bargaining for most public employees” 55 percent to 41 percent, according to a Marquette University law school poll, which accurately predicted Walker would win by 7 points.
What accounts for this dramatic shift in public opinion? According to Democrats and many in the press, it all came down to Walker’s fundraising advantage—as if voters in the state hadn’t given the issues much thought until they saw TV ads this spring. But this claim doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Both sides spent tens of millions of dollars over the past year in a series of campaigns—first in a race for a state supreme court judge in April (which conservatives narrowly won) and then in a round of state senate recalls in August (in which Republicans hung on to their majority despite being outspent $23 million to $20 million).