In Wisconsin, All Politics Is Presidential

June 5 (Bloomberg) -- Wisconsin is one of those states that time forgot.

It’s a place where you can still find a coffee shop called Have a Nice Day proudly displaying Elsie the Cow in the window. The Republican Party (the moderate one) was founded there, as was the first kindergarten in the U.S. Its state religion, the Green Bay Packers, is collectively owned, and for several months during the fall, adults willingly wear giant foam wedges of cheese atop their heads. The state constitution is the oldest outside of New England. It prides itself on capital-G Good Government.

In short, it hardly seems the place for relatives and neighbors to stop speaking to one another. Yet that’s what has happened as the recall election for Republican Governor Scott Walker, scheduled for Tuesday, approaches. The outcome is supposed to tell us not only about the power of the labor movement within the Democratic Party and of the Tea Party among Republicans, but also about who will win the White House in November.

That’s a lot of meaning to invest in one election, and it underestimates the extent to which that old cliche -- all politics is local -- holds true.

Total Recall

There are many factors at play in Wisconsin, including the candidates themselves. Shortly after taking office in January 2011, Walker ended most of the collective bargaining rights of public unions, and the Capitol became a round-the-clock protest site. About a year later, more than twice as many signatures as needed had been collected to recall him, and last month Democrats selected Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to oppose him.

The recall movement would have preferred a candidate other than Barrett, a genial, white-haired pol who oozes reasonableness, more Harry Reid than Tom Harkin. He harps on job creation and how much Walker’s attack on labor has hobbled unions. His rhetoric doesn’t necessarily resonate in Wisconsin, a relatively prosperous state with a lower-than-average unemployment rate of 6.7 percent.

In Barrett’s favor is a scandal that hangs over Walker from his days as Milwaukee County executive. Several of Walker’s former aides face criminal charges for conducting campaigning and fundraising on government time. Walker’s deputy chief of staff at the time, Tim Russell, is charged with embezzling more than $20,000 from a veterans charity. Walker hasn’t been fingered, but in May he transferred $100,000 from his campaign funds to his legal defense fund.

Walker’s local hero is Reince Priebus, his close friend and political confidante, who moved up to the Big Show as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Priebus used to lead the state party, and was elevated to the national job the same month as Walker became governor. A Walker win would be the crown jewel of Priebus’s term. After all, as Representative Paul Ryan says, “the whole world is watching” what happens Tuesday in Wisconsin.

All Wisconsin politicians are rooting for the state to become a battleground. And why not? Where would you rather practice the dark arts -- in a solid, uncontested state like Wyoming, where a candidate might drop in to Jackson Hole to pick up some campaign cash but never shake a hand? Or in, say, Florida, where for three months you have presidential candidates wooing you and spending millions trying to get your vote? To live in a solid blue or red state is to be taken for granted -- and to be politically impoverished.

Wisconsin is already feeling the love, with $62 million being spent on the campaign, much of it coming from outside the state. Estimates are that Walker is outspending Barrett by an 8-to-1 ratio, with ads blanketing the state. Barrett is getting out-of-state money from labor. Walker is getting much more from the Koch brothers, who want to cripple unions across the country, and a few famous names from the Republican presidential primaries: Sheldon Adelson (the casino owner who supported Newt Gingrich) and Foster Friess (the hedge funder who bankrolled Rick Santorum).

Still Blue

Another reason not to grant Tuesday’s election too much weight is evidence that, in presidential elections at least, Wisconsin tends to stay blue. Yes, in 2010 Walker won and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold lost. But Wisconsin is relatively stable presidentially. A Republican hasn’t won there since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

A Walker victory isn’t likely to end that streak. The same polls that show Walker running ahead of Barrett by as much as seven points show President Barack Obama winning the state again.

At the same time, if Barrett becomes governor, it won’t necessarily change the national outlook for Democrats in general or Obama in particular. Especially if there are more job reports like the one that came out Friday, or a collapse of the economy across the euro area, or blowups in Iran or Syria.

Each side would have you believe the election means everything -- until late Tuesday night, when one side will abruptly change tack and say it means absolutely nothing. As Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local. Every four years, however, all politics is presidential.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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