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How to Survive a Recall: Lessons from an Advisor to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

A rising star in his party overcomes intense opposition from across the political aisle to survive a nationally-watched recall election and bolster his resume.

It’s a story arc California Governor Gavin Newsom would welcome as he faces a recall election in the fall — and it’s what happened in Wisconsin nearly a decade ago, when Republican Governor Scott Walker defeated a recall attempt in the Badger State.

Republican consultant Liz Mair was an adviser to Walker during the 2012 campaign, and recently analyzed Newsom’s prospects of keeping his job.

“I do think that he will survive recall,” Mair told KQED’s Political Breakdown. “I just think that he is going to survive it by a much narrower margin than what he wants and what a lot of people are predicting.”


Fear the Parents

A key similarity between the two recall campaigns, Mair said, is a groundswell of frustration among parents of school kids.

“In both instances you had this undercurrent of fairly deep parental anger at certain sorts of institutions and organizations impacting state government,” she said.

In Wisconsin, Walker pushed through cuts to bargaining rights and benefits for public workers within weeks of taking office in 2011, as a way to reduce the state’s budget deficit.

Democrats and allies in organized labor held massive rallies in response at the state Capitol, and eventually qualified the recall petition.

“We had a lot of parents who had been forced to take sick leave, unpaid time off, all of these kinds of things, because their teachers basically closed the schools, didn’t teach and went to Madison and went to the Capitol to protest and demonstrate against Scott Walker,” Mair said. “I want to say [that] accounted for like minimum 5-10% of Walker’s support.”

“In California, I suspect you’ve got a similar undercurrent, but I think that’s going to be more pointed at Newsom and not working in his favor,” Mair added.

California has been among the slowest states in the country to fully reopen schools. But polling has been mixed on assigning blame to Newsom: a late-April poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 57% of Californians approve of Newsom’s handling of schools, while a survey from the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies in May found just 31% of voters think the governor is doing a good or excellent job handing schools.

And there are two factors around schools that could work in Newsom’s favor: His apparent willingness to buck teacher’s unions and end most distance learning options for next year, and the state’s enormous budget surplus, which will benefit schools.

Breaking the Seal

Before 2012, no Wisconsin governor had faced a recall vote. Mair said the Walker campaign benefited from voter hesitance.

“We did actually have people who had not voted for Scott Walker when he was first elected, who then voted in our favor on the recall,” Mair said. “They just felt that it wasn’t right to cut the guy off midterm. That just wasn’t something that was done.”

California, of course, has been through the recall ringer.

“Once you’ve had the experience of doing a recall…you can kind of imagine doing it again — whether it’s ziplining [or] skydiving,” Mair said. “I suspect that this sort of mentality and psychology of voters is going to be a little bit different.”

Expectations Matter

In all likelihood, Mair said, the Newsom recall could be heading toward a similar conclusion to the 2012 challenge to Walker. Both governors entered their recall campaigns with positive approval numbers, despite facing pitched anger from the opposing political party.

“I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the percentage that Walker won and stayed up by [53%] looks very similar to what Newsom ends up winning and stayed up by,” Mair said.

The difference, argues the veteran GOP consultant, is a matter of expectations. Walker entered the bruising recall fight in a swing state that hadn’t voted for a Republican president in decades, less than two years after he had scraped out a victory to take office.

Newsom cruised into office with 62% of the vote in 2018, in a state where Republicans make up less than a quarter of the electorate.

“Walker’s margin was not huge,” Mair said. “We were perfectly satisfied with it — it was basically what we anticipated the whole way through based on what we were seeing.”

And it was success in the expectations game, Mair said, that launched Walker’s star.  After defeating the recall, Walker won re-election in 2014 and was seen as a leading contender for president in 2016, before his campaign flamed out. Newsom’s potential margin of victory this fall could determine his outlook for re-election in 2022 and beyond.

“If [Newsom] wins decisively on the recall, I do agree that could help him a lot in 2022,” Mair said. “But if he comes out with like 52% of the vote or something, that could be a real drag going into 2022,” Mair said.

“So I just think, you know, the psychology of the campaign teams is also going to be a little bit different,” she added. “And ultimately that does have an effect on how candidates perform.”

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