Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said today his victory in yesterday’s recall election sets the stage for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to be competitive in his state in November’s election.
“I think he is an underdog,” Walker said on MSNBC. “I think he’d acknowledge he’s an underdog, particularly here in Wisconsin. But I think anyone looking at the results last night would also acknowledge that it’s now competitive in Wisconsin.”
Walker’s win prompted Democratic and Republican strategists to reassess Wisconsin’s political landscape and the role the state will play in November’s election. Until earlier this week, target states listed by President Barack Obama’s campaign didn’t include the state, which has voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, albeit narrowly at times.
In a campaign video released June 4 -- the day before the recall -- Obama campaign manager Jim Messina listed Wisconsin as “undecided,” along with Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One today that he hadn’t yet spoken extensively with Obama about the Wisconsin outcome.
“I certainly wouldn’t read much into yesterday’s results,” he said, adding that Obama’s message about growing the economy and jobs “will resonate in Wisconsin.”
It remains an open question whether Romney can capitalize on Walker’s momentum. So far, his campaign has yet to announce any travel plans to Wisconsin.
“The key for Governor Romney to be competitive enough to win is I think he’s got to lay out a clear platform -- something similar to what our friend Paul Ryan has done,” Walker said, pointing to the U.S. House Budget Committee chairman whose proposed overhaul of Medicaid and Medicare and suggested government spending cuts is being used by Democrats to rally support.
Walker said that if Romney “makes a compelling case to the people of Wisconsin that he’s willing to take those kinds of risks to get America back on track for our kids and our grandkids’ kids, he can win.”
Three of the biggest names in Republican politics today call Wisconsin home: Walker, Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Even before the vote totals were in, Democrats and Republicans were working to spin the significance of the outcome for the matchup between Obama and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
The organization and mobilization of Wisconsin Republicans to protect Walker could provide Romney a boost, should he decide to compete aggressively in the state.
If the presumptive Republican nominee were able to make Wisconsin a competitive state, it could make a major difference in this year’s campaign. Winning a Midwest industrial state such as Wisconsin or Michigan, which both backed Obama in 2008, would provide him an easier path to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the White House.
A victory wouldn’t be an easy task for Romney, 65. The state, which has 10 electoral votes, hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since President Ronald Reagan carried it in his 1984 re-election against Democrat Walter Mondale, who won just one state, his native Minnesota.
Obama, 50, in the 2008 election beat Republican John McCain in Wisconsin, 56 percent to 42 percent. An exit poll of recall election voters conducted yesterday showed Obama beating Romney, 51 percent to 44 percent.
Still, if this presidential election plays out similar to those held in 2000 and 2004, Romney could have a fighting chance. Former President George W. Bush came within several thousand votes of winning the state in both of those election cycles.
Also boosting Republican confidence in the state are their 2010 victories, when the party won the governor’s office, as well as a U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Russ Feingold. They also picked up two House seats in the state’s eight-member delegation and gained control of both chambers of the state legislature.
Tea Party activists were an important constituency behind Republican Ron Johnson’s 2010 Senate win and the movement, which promotes a smaller role for the federal government, remains a force in the state.
Spending on the recall through May 21 amounted to at least $66 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group in Madison that follows election financing. That’s almost double the $37 million spent on the 2010 governor’s race. Walker alone raised more than $30 million, with about two-thirds coming from out of state.
The financial imbalance contributed to Walker’s victory, recall supporters said. Still, as important as money was in the race, its significance may be overplayed by Democrats. The exit polling showed that nearly nine in ten voters made their decision on the recall prior to May, more than a month before the actual vote and an explosion of television advertising.
Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said today that Wisconsin is in play, though he cautioned not to overestimate the effects of the recall vote.
“I do think it will be competitive in November,” he said of Wisconsin at a Bloomberg Breakfast in Washington today. “But winning in a recall election does not mean you should put it in your ‘leans-Republican’ column today.”
Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the vote affirms policies proposed by governors in other states and by Romney that would limit unions as a way of closing budget gaps.
“The election results indicate that there is a receptive message out in the heartland, the country at large, for that center-right approach,” he said.
“The playing field has broadened for Republicans,” Gillespie said. “The fact that Wisconsin is in play is revealing.”
Walker beat Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 53 percent to 46 percent with all of the vote recorded, according to unofficial returns from the Associated Press.
Obama’s Wisconsin win four years ago was boosted by a surge in support among younger voters, a demographic that remains more supportive of him than Romney and yet which polls show is less energetic about his campaign than it was four years ago.
The president declined to get involved in the recall race, with the exception of an Internet post supportive of Barrett on the evening before the vote. He literally flew over the state -- twice -- on June 1 en route to his own campaign events in Minnesota and Illinois.
Besides the potential of an embarrassing loss, Obama traveling to Wisconsin also would have brought with it the risk of turning off some of the independent voters who backed Walker that the president needs to win in November.
Romney, who also didn’t visit the state in the run-up to the recall election, made supportive statements about Walker as he campaigned ahead of Wisconsin’s April 3 primary, a victory that accelerated his path to clinching his party’s presidential nomination.
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