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What Republicans and Democrats can learn from Wisconsin recall election

WISCONSIN GOVERNOR WALKER.jpg

FILE: Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker reacts at his victory party in Waukesha, Wis., after defeating Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in a special recall election.AP

Scott Walker prevailed in yesterday’s recall election in Wisconsin.  There is no doubt the outcome is a disappointing blow to Democrats and the left and a shot in the arm for Republicans.  But in looking forward, the Wisconsin recall has ominous lessons for both parties in the November presidential election and more broadly.  After all, on the one hand Walker won, but on the other hand in exit polls from the recall, voters favor President Obama over Mitt Romney by 51 to 45 percent.  In other words, both parties have lessons to learn and work to do.

Here are three curds of wisdom each that Democrats and Republicans should take from the Wisconsin recall:

Lessons for Democrats

1.  Centrist candidates don’t motivate liberal voters.

Tom Barrett was a troublesome candidate from the get-go.  Apart from the fact that he had already lost to Scott Walker in their first match up, Barrett earned the ire labor unions for trying to takeover the Milwaukee public school system and supporting charter schools.  Unlike conservatives, who have seen a bump in voter energy and thus, victory, in recent years by running candidates whose positions and values match the conservative base, Democrats keep promoting folks who can only be described Clinton Democrat after Clinton Democrat and then wondering why liberal voters stay home. 

To make matters worse, if these candidates do win, they support gutting Social Security and cutting taxes on billionaires, undermining the progressive Democratic agenda that has made the party (and America) strong for the last 70 years.

2.  It is hard to translate grassroots anger into electoral power.  

This is a tough one for progressives.  Comprised of people who are used to being marginalized, and are often self-marginalizing politically, converting on-the-ground protests to in-the-ballot-box organization has always tripped up the left.  This is one thing the Tea Party, on the other hand, did very smoothly (though the third phase, comfort with governance and the necessary compromises, isn’t coming so easily to the right either).   Perhaps the only silver lining of defeats like Tuesday night is they will continue to provoke progressive activists to keep honing their electoral skills and build real power that holds the Democratic Party accountable.

3.  Democrats don’t get how small fights build to big fights

The real story is the failure of the national Democratic Party, and President Obama in particular, to throw down for Barrett in the Wisconsin race. The party sent some fundraising help but never direct cash from its coffers. Obama steered clear until the last moment when he tweeted about the race.  Oh, and the Obama campaign put a video on its site on the day of the election telling people to get involved and vote -- a video that didn’t feature the president.  

Presumably, the president didn’t want to take his eye off the larger fall contest. Understandable.

But as likely is the fact that while Republicans understood winning in Wisconsin was key to perpetuating their larger, anti-union narrative across the country, national Democratic leadership repeatedly fails to understand how “small” fights at the state and local level add up to seismic shifts in public opinion and policy nationally. 

The GOP, on the other hand, does an excellent job of seeding risky ideas in the states, pushing them with gusto, and building on even a few small victories.

Lessons for Republicans

1.  You can’t beat somebody with nobody

Republicans should also be worried by evidence that the race was so tight in part because the Democratic base was uninspired by Tom Barrett.  In addition to Barrett’s lack of charisma, Barrett had political differences with the more left-leaning, activist wing of his base -- not dissimilar from the challenges facing Mitt Romney.  According to Fox News polling, the main motivation among voters who support Romney is that he’s “not Obama.” 

By the same token, poll analysts in Wisconsin noted early on that the real contest was driven by Walker’s supporters being more motivated to turn out than Barrett’s. And Walker, incidentally, lost among female voters and those making under $50,000 -- demographics with which Romney is also struggling and that will matter far more in November. 

Walker may have been a Republican, but he was also an incumbent, a reminder of the challenge of defeating any sitting office-holder, let alone one far more popular and effective than Scott Walker.

2.  Money isn’t everything

In part because, as an incumbent facing recall Walker wasn’t limited by the amount of money he could raise, he outspent challenger Tom Barrett by volumes. According to the independent Center for Public Integrity, Walker raised seven times more than Barrett — Walker netting $30.5 million in donations (two-thirds from out of state), with Barrett raising just $4 million (only one-quarter from out of state).  One would expect such a massive fundraising difference to translate into a much wider margin for Walker. But the fact that dollars didn’t directly translate into percentage points in polls and the vote suggest that Republicans, who plan to use SuperPACs and big business connections to wildly outspend the Obama may not get what they pay for.  

3.  Overreach is costly

From the get go, it was plain to everyone that Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights had nothing to do with Wisconsin’s fiscal woes. Public sector unions had already agreed to pension and wage givebacks that would have saved the state millions.  There was no reason to take the extra step except for Walker to make himself a conservative hero and lay the groundwork for union-bashing legislation across the country. 

The pushback was tremendous.  The protests in Wisconsin captivated the nation.  Over 900,000 Wisconsin voters signed petitions to recall the governor, the first-ever gubernatorial recall in the state’s history.  

And the pushback spread, with voters in Ohio also striking down that state’s Wisconsin-inspired union-bashing law. The big businesses behind these measures may still be getting their money’s worth. Ultimately they dream of stripping not only public and private sector union rights but all wage and benefits protections to eek the maximum profits from the lowest possible labor costs.  But at the very least, their agenda has been exposed and cost them more money and public support than anticipated.

All told, Scott Walker pulled it off in the Wisconsin recall but, as they gear up for November and the fights ahead, neither party is really winning.  

Sally Kohn joined the Fox News Channel in 2012 as a contributor.