By John Nichols / The Nation / May 8, 2012
The Wisconsin uprising against Governor Scott Walker’s assaults on union rights, public education and public services spawned a recall movement that has forced Walker and his political allies to face new elections. And the first of these takes place today, with Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, lieutenant governor and four state Senate seats.
So what should we watch for today?
Very sunny, mild day in Wisconsin—great for voting.
But Wisconsin has never held a primary in May.
The Wisconsin recall elections are unprecedented, not just for the Badger State but for the nation. Never before has a single state had citizen-initiated elections on the same day that could shift control of the executive branch and the dominant chamber in the state legislature.
The first question is turnout. Will the intensity of the Wisconsin fight bring crowds to the polls for the primaries on the Democratic and Republican sides of the ballot.
The record high turnout for a primary in the post-war era was 1952, when Joe McCarthy faced a GOP primary challenge and Dems were nominating a challenger. Intense moment, comparable in many ways to the current one.
We’ll see if turnout is comparable. That’s a measure of intensity.
Crossovers in the GOP Primary
Scott Walker will lose some Madison precincts to his “Real Republican” challenger, Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a Capitol protester who has run a smart, fun campaign challenging the governor’s policies and the premise that the Republican party must be reactionary. Kohl-Riggs’s message is an appealing one for determined foes of the governor: “Why Wait? Recall Tom Barrett on Tuesday.”
It is, in fact, true that were Walker to lose the Republican primary, he would be out of office in May, not June. But there are other measures of success or failure for governors facing primary challenges.
If Kohl-Riggs runs up any kind of vote beyond Madison—and certainly if he gets into double digits—that’s a sign not of crossovers but of Republican distaste for Walker.
In the past, sitting governors who lose significant percentages of the vote in their primaries have been harmed—as the vote for a little known challenger is a sign of weakness.
Crossovers in the Democratic Primary
Wisconsinites can vote in either party primary in each race.
The Democratic gubernatorial primary could see some significant Republican crossover voting for either for the “fake Democrat” candidate—a Republican running on the Democratic side with the encouragement of the Republican Party of Wisconsin—or for one of the real Democrats who is thought to be weaker.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett leads in the pre-primary polls and leads Walker in at least some polling anticipating the June 5 vote. So he would not be the beneficiary of crossover voting.
If someone other than Barrett wins collar counties surrounding Milwaukee—probably former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk—that could be an indication that there has been a significant Republican crossover. (All the Democratic primary candidates are progressives. Barrett has a lot of endorsements from elected officials, the Teamsters and the union representing police officers. Falk’s got many of the other unions and environmental groups. Two other candidates, Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Senator Kathleen Vinehout, have both drawn credible grassroots backing.)
Watch, as well, for Republican crossovers in the four state Senate primaries. There are “fake Democrats” running in all four primaries. If one of the “fake Democrats” runs high numbers, that will be a sign of weakness for the real Democrat.
How Quickly Will The June 5 Race Begin?
It has already begun.
The governor and his backers have dominated the airwaves since the recall fight began. He has spent $21 million and more than half of the television ads aired in Wisconsin have been produced by Walker, the Republican Party and their allies.
Only 2.4 percent of the television advertising was done by unions and groups explicitly opposed to Walker.
Now, the opposition to Walker will begin to be heard. The first ads raising concerns about his jobs record went up a few days ago, and now come the first ads raising concerns about the “John Doe” probe into corruption in his office and his 2010 campaign.
Even as he has dominated the discourse, Walker’s approval ratings have ticked downward. What happens when that dominance is challenged? That’s what we will find out as the campaign turns from the primary fights to the main event: a June 5 recall race that Democrats and Republicans agree will be the most closely watched and influential state election of 2012.