STEVENS POINT, Wisc. – Tom Barrett had the crowd at Emy J’s coffee shop eating out of his hand even before he arrived.
The signs showing Wisconsin as an uplifted fist of protest were waving and more than 100 faculty members, students, union members and Democratic activists in this small college town were singing and chanting in the rain long before Barrett showed up.
The most common motto on t-shirts: “This is what democracy looks like,” a reference to the protests of 2010 and 2011 that filled the state capitol in Madison and captured the nation’s attention, especially when Democratic state senators fled the state and hid in Illinois to prevent the passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair law.
Walker’s law, which curtailed the power of collective bargaining for government-worker unions in the state, was passed in March 2011. The challenge for Barrett is that the anxiety and drama of the budget control act is powerful but dangerous. To win the historic recall election against Walker on Tuesday, Barrett needs to revive the spirit of protest and outrage that animated the left side of Wisconsin two winters ago without terrifying the suburbanites that will decide the race.
But at Emy J’s, in the same small strip mall as an organic bakery and the “worker-owned” Wisconsin Wool Exchange, the spirit of those protests was very much alive. The anger at Walker coursed through the crowd and everyone, from teenagers to senior citizens, seemed to have a bad word for the governor.
As the owners of the coffee shop passed free scones through the crowd and parents shielded their children from a spitting rain, attendees made it clear that this was a make or break moment for the state and the nation: “If Walker wins, corporations will just spread their war on workers to another state. This is where we have to stop them,” one told Power Play.
The message was the same across the state in Milwaukee where Jesse Jackson and MSNBC host Al Sharpton headlined a rally for hundreds in the struggling city on Lake Michigan: Stop Walker and you will stop Republicans and their billionaire backers all across the nation.
But Barrett, who campaigned with former President Bill Clinton, a moderate Democrat, two days before, struggled to tap into the same rage as Sharpton and Jackson. Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, fired up the crowd by attacking Walker’s donors and Walker’s character, raising many details of an investigation into $21,000 that went missing from a veteran’s fund during Walker’s eight-year tenure as the head of Wisconsin County’s government.
Barrett had attendees fired up and ready to go when he said Walker’s goal was to be a “rock star” to the tea party movement and conservatives nationally who wanted to turn Wisconsin into Texas (apparently a very dire prospect to those in attendance).
But then this: “I don’t want to be a rock star to the far right -- and, this may disappoint some of you here – I don’t want to be a rock star for the far left either…” Cue sad trombone sound.
When FOX News colleague Bret Baier asked Barrett if his first priority in office would be to repeal Walker’s union law, the very thing that triggered this first-ever recall vote in the state, Barrett sidestepped. He seemed to affirm that he would do so, but quickly moved into politics speak about uniting the state.
So here, at a place where Democratic loyalists came to have their ardor refreshed, Barrett gave the pitch that sounded better suited for a moderate suburban neighborhood than the members of the audience at a fair-trade coffee shop in a county that has never, to anyone’s knowledge, been carried by a Republican presidential candidate.
They knew why they were here, but did Barrett?
Wisconsin, a state where political division between the Republican east and Democratic west produced a decades-long stalemate, has boiled over into a partisan war.
Consider that state election officials forecast that turnout will be above 60 percent of the state’s adult population. By national standards, that is massive. As Wisconsin’s top political journalist, Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, pointed out turnout in California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall clocked in at 36 percent.
But even by the standards of Wisconsin, with a history of high voter turnout, it’s huge. No regular gubernatorial election since 1950 has ever drawn out so many voters.
Walker has embraced the recall election as a choice election – a referendum on the government-worker legislation. He talks it up at his campaign stops across the state and, until a late-election blunder in which he went on air with an attack ad blaming Barrett for the handling of a baby’s murder by Milwaukee police, it had been the overall focus of his campaign.
Barrett, on the other hand, is calling for a return to the old cease-fire. The three-decade political status quo Wisconsin favored Democrats generally but made room for a handful of moderate Republicans. But since President Obama’s whopping 14-point victory in 2008, the state has shifted.
The number of self-described moderates has declined, with the numbers of both liberals and conservatives on the rise. But the Gallup numbers seem to tell the tale about the state’s future: 41 percent call themselves conservative, but only 23 percent described themselves as liberals.
Barrett wants to go back, but as residents of other states that have completed political transitions know, there is no chance. Once the animal spirits of politics have been unleashed, they are not to be caged. Wisconsin’s status quo is dead.
What the folks in this college town want is a champion for a liberal, pro-union comeback. What Barrett is offering is a trip back to the purple past. At Emy J’s, they know that the fight for Wisconsin’s political future is happening right now and there’s no going back to a Clintonian third way. They also know that if Walker succeeds, other conservatives will be emboldened to take on government-worker unions elsewhere and that the national GOP will intensify its focus on the state for the fall.
They’re hardly wrong.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.