Imagine, for a moment, an alternate history in Wisconsin. What if Republican Gov. Scott Walker hadn’t tried to wipe out public-sector unions and sic the National Guard on those who opposed him mere weeks after taking office? Would this summer’s recall elections still have occurred, giving Democrats the chance to reclaim control of the state Senate less than a year after the 2010 Republican landslide?
It’s hard to envision the political turmoil now roiling the Badger State without the hundreds of thousands of protesters who poured into Madison this winter, occupying the state capitol and jamming the streets in response to Walker’s assault on workers’ rights. But from the ads flooding the airwaves, the flyers filling mailboxes, and the candidates’ stump speeches, you wouldn’t know that a fight over collective bargaining rights sparked Wisconsin’s recall elections. While not forgotten, workers’ rights have receded to the background as education, health care, voter disenfranchisement, and budget cuts dominate the debate. “Both sides don’t seem to want to fight their recall battles on the original turf,” says Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
That’s no surprise. Only 15 percent of Wisconsin’s workforce is unionized (on par with the national average), and five of the six districts where GOP incumbents face recall challenges lean Republican—some quite heavily. Harping on union issues alone won’t net the three seats Democrats need to gain control of the Senate and body-block Walker’s agenda. Democrats’ strategy, as laid out in interviews, campaign stops, and public statements, means selling voters on the villainy of Walker’s broader agenda and his governorship as a whole. But can they do it—and more importantly, will voters buy it?