John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett won a sweeping victory in the primary to choose a Democratic nominee to oppose anti-labor Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin's June 5 recall election. And, despite $21 million in spending and a concerted effort by the embattled governor, the state Republican Party and conservative talk radio hosts to run up his GOP primary numbers, Walker's total fell far short of the combined Democratic total.
Barrett, the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee who entered the race late — and who was significantly outspent by another Democrat, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, and her allies — won by a far wider margin than even his most enthusiastic backers would have dared predict. The mayor took 58 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Falk, while state Senator Kathleen Vinehout won 4 percent and Secretary of State Doug La Follette was at 3 percent.
Barrett won 56 of Wisconsin's 72 counties, including Falk's home base of Dane County, which includes the state capitol in Madison. Most of Falk's win's came in sparsely populated northern Wisconsin counties. Despite the fact that she had secured endorsements from many of the state's largest unions, Barrett won traditional labor strongholds (such as Rock, Racine, Kenosha, Manitowioc, Sheboygan and Brown counties) in the southern and eastern regions of the state.
Falk's endorsement of Barrett was gracious, unequivocal and immediate, putting to rest most questions about whether Democrats would unify following the primary. And Barrett predicted Tuesday night at a packed Milwaukee victory party (where leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees and other unions joined the cheering throngs) that: "We will be united because we understand we cannot fix Wisconsin as long as Scott Walker is the governor of this state."
If Democrats remain unified, they are well positioned for the four-week fight preceding the June 5 general election — which will also see a Democratic challenge to Republican incumbents for the post of lieutenant governor and for four state Senate seats.
Walker had pulled out all the stops seeking to run up his Republican primary total, spending heavily on television and direct mail, making dozens of official and campaign stops across the state in the days prior to the primary and devoting hours of his time Tuesday to get-out-the-vote appearances on right-wing talk radio programs in Milwaukee, Madison and across the state. The hope was that he could gain a higher vote total than the Democrats — and with it bragging rights going into an intense general election campaign with Barrett.
Walker got a lot of Republicans to the polls, winning 626,538 votes — almost twice what he received in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. He easily beat his GOP challenger this year, young activist Arthur Kohl-Riggs, who ran as a "real Republican," arguing that Walker had broken faith with the true values of the party of Abraham Lincoln and the progressive reformers of a century ago.
In many states, at many times, the turnout for Walker would be striking. But, in Wisconsin, where pollsters and political observers see the highest level of political intensity and polarization in the country, Walker's aides and allies made no secret of the fact that they wanted desperately to have the governor outpoll the Democrats.
It didn't happen.
Walker's 626,538 was far behind the 665,436 received by Barrett, Falk, Vinehout and La Follette.
Presuming that most of the 19,920 votes cast for Kohl-Riggs will go to Barrett in the general election (while the 4,842 votes cast for a Walker-allied "fake Democrat" in the Democratic primary will go to the governor), that means that the anti-Walker vote was 55,000 votes ahead of the pro-Walker total.
Everyone agrees that turnout will be dramatically higher for the June 5 general election. And no one is predicting that Barrett will have an easy time of it running against Walker, who has raised more than $25 million, mostly from out-of-state conservative donors, and who enjoys the enthusiastic backing of right-wing billionaires such as Charles and David Koch.
But Barrett charged into the race, declaring Tuesday night that: "This is a historic election. We all know it's a historic election."
"Do we want a governor who has divided this state like it has never been divided before?" the newly nominated Democrat asked. "Do we want a governor who has caused this state to lose more jobs than any other state in this country?"
"No" the crowd roared.
Referencing the John Doe investigation of criminal activities in Milwaukee County while Walker served as the county executive, and of scandals related to his 2010 campaign, Barrett asked: "Do we want a governor who has to have a legal defense fund?"
No, the crowd shouted event more loudly.
Noting Walker's fundraising advantage, Barrett said there was no question that the governor would "flood this state with out of state special interest money." But, referencing the mass movement that developed with protests at the Capitol against Walker's policies but evolved into a political force capable of gathering close to a million signatures and forcing the recall election, Barrett said Walker's money power could and would be countered "by the people with Wisconsin values."