John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.
Political analysts on the right and the left agree that the Wisconsin recall race between Republican Governor Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett is the most competitive gubernatorial race in the nation. Pundits on the left and the right agree that the Wisconsin fight — which targets a conservative governor who has brought an anti-labor, austerity agenda to an American state — is second only to the presidential race in importance.
But there is a dramatic difference in the intensity of commitment to the race by national Republicans and their conservative allies on one side and national Democrats and their allies on the other.
The Republicans aren't holding anything back.
"We're all in here," says Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsinite whose name has turned up frequently in indictments of Walker aides targeted by a "John Doe" inquiry into felony violations of government ethics and campaign-finance laws. "We will be involved for as much as we need to be involved. We haven't put a limit on the number."
Priebus offers his "all in" commitment even though Walker's campaign has a 25–1 financial advantage over Barrett. And that doesn't even count the millions coming in from the Koch brothers and other national donors who are funding so-called "independent" expenditures on the governor's behalf.
What is the Democratic National Committee offering in return? Not as much. While the Democratic Governors Association and some other groups with party ties have been supportive of the electoral fight in Wisconsin, the DNC has been slow on the draw. Even now, after much discussion of the DNC's slow response, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz says only that she hopes to come to Wisconsin for a fundraising event. Translation: she will make an appearance in Wisconsin where Wisconsinites will be asked to give money to the DNC.
Needless to say, that's not even a minimally equal level of commitment to the one made by Priebus and the RNC.
In fairness, Democrats do not have to equal the Republican level of engagement. They just have to be in the game.
That's because Walker's spending, while meaningful, can't undo all the damage he has done to his own reputation.
Walker burned through $21 million between November and late April, yet his approval ratings — according to what's generally seen as the most reliable Wisconsin poll, that of Marquette University's Law School — have actually declined slightly since the start of the year.
Despite the spending of the better part of $30 million on pro-Walker and anti-Barrett messaging, the latest polls show a race where Walker still can't get above 50 percent approval ratings or support levels.
While the latest polls give the governor a narrow lead, they also show that there is deep concern about job losses. Indeed, according to the latest Marquette University Law School survey, that concern has risen dramatically in recent months.
Walker is clearly frightened by that reality. Burned by Bureau of Labor Statistics data that show Wisconsin has suffered the worst job losses in the nation since the governor's austerity agenda was implemented, Walker on Wednesday pitched a "revised" set of jobs figures — based on projections from data used by no other state and no previous Wisconsin governor. Walker and his campaign are now pouring millions of dollars into advertising that pushes an agenda that, by every traditional measure, is failing. Walker and his campaign are now pouring millions of dollars into advertising that says an agenda, which by every traditional measure is failing, has, by a calculus known only to the governor, succeeded.
That's a tough sell.
But it gets easier when Walker and his "independent" backers dominate the airwaves.
This is where the money issue becomes significant.
Joel Rogers, a sociologist and political theorist, says that we often miss the reality of how money works in politics. The point at which to look at the role of money in politics is not the final tabulation that says one candidate or party had more money than the other. The point at which to compare is at the early- and mid-stages of a campaign. Does one side have such an overwhelming advantage that it can effectively silence the other? Does one candidate have the ability to so dominate the discourse that their messages come to define the debate?
That's what Scott Walker and his supporters have tried to do. They did not succeed in the early stages of the recall campaign, at least in part because of the high level of attention to the campaign and the intensity of the opposition to Walker mustered by energetic grassroots groups such as United Wisconsin.
Now, however, as this fast-paced campaign reaches its midpoint, Walker's financial dominance allows him to spin political fantasies that are precisely at odds with reality — as he's doing with the spun job-loss numbers.
This is where the frustration with national Democrats becomes a factor. While unions have been delivering resources for grassroots mobilization, there has not been an equivalent level of engagement by national Democratic Party operatives. Callers to Ed Schultz's national radio show, a broadcast center of the discussion about the state-based struggles by unions and defenders of public services and public education, were furious with the DNC.
They aren't just griping, however.
Brookfield, Wisconsin, activist Mary Magnuson went to MoveOn.org's member-driven petition site — www.SignOn.org — with a note that read: "As a Wisconsin progressive working day and night for the recall of Scott Walker, I'm shocked: The Democratic National Committee still isn't giving financial support to the recall fight in Wisconsin. After more than a year of grassroots efforts, Wisconsin citizens have accomplished more than anyone thought possible. We now have a Democratic challenger to Scott Walker who is neck and neck in the polls, even though Tom Barrett is being outspent by Walker's millions from out-of-state donations."
Magnuson continued: "There is no more time for the Democratic National Committee to wait — if Walker wins, it would be a huge setback to Democrats in races across the country this year. We need the DNC's support immediately!"
The petition language is simple, but blunt: "Democratic National Committee and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, invest now in the crucial fight to remove Scott Walker from office in Wisconsin — the people have worked hard and it's time to help."
By mid-day Wednesday, more than 100,000 people had signed on.
These are grassroots activists, most of them Democrats, who recognize that Magnuson is right.
If the Wisconsin recall is defeated, not because Walker or his austerity agenda was appealing but because he and the RNC and the Koch brothers were more committed, then the Democratic party will take a hard hit. Not just in Wisconsin but nationally.
It won't just be that the Democratic National Committee will be identified as a dysfunctional political operation when compared to the Republican National Committee. A failure to leap into an essential fight about the future of working families and their unions, as well as public education and public services, will raise questions about whether D.C. Democrats "get" what America is debating about.