The battle for Wisconsin is over. Conservatives won by fending off the union-orchestrated attempt to oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Now the fight is on to spin what it means. On the eve of Mr. Walker’s sizable 7-point victory, GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney announced, “Tonight’s results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.” Democrats are downplaying their momentous loss, claiming it’s not representative of their chances in the November election. This brave face masks liberal existential fear that their voting base may be falling apart. The danger for the left is real.
The consequences cut much deeper than just the recall drive in the Badger State. Along with the media and Hollywood, unions are the most reliable supporters the Democrats have. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, labor unions spent hundreds of millions of dollars (with some estimates as high as $400 million) to get him and other Democrats elected. The Service Employees International Union alone blew $85 million that year, according to the Hill newspaper. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent around $67 million. Unions went all out again and wasted nine figures worth of their members’ dues to try to save liberal incumbents in the 2010 midterm election. That effort failed, with Republicans picking up 63 seats to retake the majority in the House of Representatives and gaining 680 state legislative seats across the land.
It’s in that context that Democrats are panicking about the chances that their usual constituencies may not have the muscle to keep President Obama in the White House. Despite employing every dirty trick in the book, including busing in goons from other states to occupy the capital and intimidate Wisconsin voters, their campaign to kick Mr. Walker out of the governor’s mansion was a dismal failure. This is all the more poignant because Wisconsin is hardly a red state, having voted for a Democrat for president in six straight elections going back to 1988 - and half of that time voting against the eventual Republican victor. The place has been trending to the right during the Obama years, however, electing Republican Ron Johnson to the U.S. Senate and Mr. Walker as governor in 2010.
What the cheeseheads think is important because it makes clear that the majority of Wisconsin voters are fed up with the wasteful spending and unaccountable actions of government bureaucrats who have cushy, protected jobs. Only 7 percent of Wisconsinites who work in the private sector are unionized, compared to 37 percent of government employees. Most people simply don’t want to pay for gold-plated benefits for bureaucrats anymore, especially given that the state deficit was $3.6 billion when this governor took office last year. Mr. Walker came out on top this week because he took on the entrenched interests and signed real cuts in entitlements and government pension programs. If America is to avoid going over the financial cliff, this needs to be done all over the country. “There are real issues with the long-term spending obligations for retirement benefits,” Zachary Karabell explained in the Daily Beast. “Current growth rates in the United States do not support the level of future obligations.”
Democrats are in trouble because the economy is in the gutter and they have no turnaround plans other than more deficit spending. They also have hitched their wagon to a tired old donkey that might not be able to pull them to the finish this year. Union membership has been in decline and the political influence of labor has been eroding for decades. There were 3 million fewer union members in America last year than in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and those people are graying. Only 4.4 percent of workers aged 16-24 are in unions while the highest membership rate of 15.7 percent is among those aged 55-64.
This anti-union dynamic, coupled with the public backlash against Mr. Obama’s historic debt and runaway deficit spending, undermines the very foundation of the liberal establishment. “Over the decades, the Democratic Party has built its coalition around public spending and the recruitment of new groups into the political process, often by promises of new public programs,” James Piereson writes in the June issue of The New Criterion. “The Democratic Party has gradually evolved into a ‘public-sector party’ that finds its votes and organizational strength in public-sector unions, government employees and contractors, and beneficiaries of government programs.”
The Democrats’ public-sector model presents a huge opportunity for the GOP. Most Americans are mad about government debt and the lack of substantive action to address the fiscal crisis. There is little sympathy for overpaid workers occupying buildings to protect their pampered lifestyle amid unemployment stuck over 8 percent. As Mr. Romney said, “Gov. Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back - and prevail - against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.” Even 38 percent of union households voted to back the governor. There was some griping that Mr. Obama didn’t travel to the Midwest to fight publicly for the anti-Walker forces. That the president chose to stay away shows he was worried the recall would fail and he didn’t want ownership of the loss.
Make no mistake about it, Wisconsin is a sign of where the electorate is headed this year, and it’s promising news for Republicans. Doubters should take a boat ride from Milwaukee to the neighboring Great Lakes State. According to an EPIC-MRA poll published Thursday by the Detroit Free Press, Mr. Romney now leads Mr. Obama by 1 percent in Michigan, a state that voted for Democrats for president in the past five elections. The president was up by 4 points there in April. Four years ago, he won Michigan by 16.5 points and Wisconsin by 14. The tide is turning fast, and Mr. Obama could be consumed by an electoral tsunami.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, 2011).