Wisconsin Suffers a Political Slap in the Face

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If you want to see what a whomping looks like, click here. There you can watch as a Wisconsin voter, polite as a dairymaid, slaps Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the face after his loss to Governor Scott Walker in last night's recall election.

Last night's results are one of the starkest examples yet of what money can buy. Even before Barrett won the nomination to run against him, Walker blanketed the state with TV and radio ads. Barrett could never catch up, nor did he have the wherewithal to do so. Walker had a 7-to-1 cash advantage. For the first time at the state level, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision showed what unfettered donations can do. State elections are so much cheaper than a presidential election. For a mere $63 million, you can be sure that business interests as opposed to workers will prevail. Much of the money fueling Walker’s effort to cripple public unions was from wealthy out-of-state donors who want to cripple all unions.

For all that money, unions are no match. Labor called hundreds of thousands of voters and knocked on thousands of doors in a massive get-out-the-vote effort -- and lost.

This is likely to embolden Walker wannabes. Watch as Republican governors go after public sector unions across the country. It’s a win-win situation. Even if they don’t have a cooperative Republican legislature (as Walker did) to push the changes through, they will attract the support of a growing legion of business interests that see an opportunity to wound labor.

With few exceptions (Joe McCarthy comes to mind), Wisconsin is known for civility, in its politics and sports. Vince Lombardi liked to win but he liked to do it with decency. This election showed Wisconsin to be more like Washington -- uncivil to the point of brutish. Scuffles broke out in voting lines, and  neighbors stopped speaking to neighbors, as politics moved from engaging the mind to boiling the blood.

One winner that cut across the partisan divide is the Marquette University Law School poll. It had Walker leading Barrett by 7 percentage points going into Election Day, and 7 points it was. No one wants to talk to anyone who interrupts dinner these days, but it helps if the caller is a cheesehead with a Waukeshan accent.

The remnants of civility in Wisconsinites were evident in exit polls asking about the recall: Most don’t approve. Ten percent said recalls are never appropriate for any reason; 27 percent that recalls are appropriate for any reason. Barrett won those folks big time. But he was swamped by the 60 percent that  said recalls are legitimate only for official misconduct. Walker won that group, 68 to 31. While pro-recall forces got 900,000 signatures, more than 2.5 million people voted.

Marquette also predicted the anomaly that Walker could win big and leave no coattails for Romney to ride. According to exit polls, 18 percent of the very people who gave Walker his victory favored Obama. Maybe sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a state election is just a state election.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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