Forget everything you’ve read about Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election.
Forget who won (incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker). Forget who lost (Democrat and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett). Forget the margin of victory (7 points, in favor of Walker). Forget why the recall election was launched in the first place (unions angry over losing their collective bargaining rights). Forget it all.
There’s an old saying in politics to which journalists adhere: follow the money. And, in my opinion, there’s no bigger lesson to be learned from Scott Walker’s victory on June 5th than what can be uncovered simply by following the money trail.
The Republican Money Trail
The Friends of Scott Walker raised more than $30 million dollars during the course of the recall campaign. All but $12 million of it – representing nearly 60 percent of all contributions – came from outside of Wisconsin. That means that non-residents influenced what cheeseheads saw on mudslinging TV ads, read about in their local newspaper ads, or received in their mailboxes by almost a two to one margin compared to in-state contributions.
Which states had the biggest influence?
Texas boasted the second highest contribution total (Wisconsin being the first) at $1.9 million donated. Florida wasn’t far behind at $1.6 million. Californians contributed $1.5 million, while New Yorkers put forth close to a cool million to support the embattled Walker.
The Democrat Money Trail
By comparison, the Barrett for Wisconsin campaign was largely a grass roots effort. Nearly three-quarters of the $3.9 million Barrett campaigners raised came from in-state donors. To be fair to the right, Walker did raise more money than Barrett on their home turf, and did so by a wide margin: Walker outraised Barrett by more than four to one in Wisconsin.
Other than Wisconsin, only one state (California) saw contributions higher than $150,000.
Fueling The Spending Spree
The two-year-old Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court opened the door for this spending spree. Up until that time, Wisconsin had a century-old ban that prohibited corporations and unions from contributing to political campaigns. The 2010 gubernatorial race in Wisconsin – the one that got Scott Walker the governor’s seat in the first place – saw record spending, thanks to the Citizens United ruling and the creation of Super PACs.
The Take Away
Years from now, I don’t think we’ll be talking about this recall election because of who won or who didn’t. Nor do I think it will make it into the history books because it represents the end of labor unions; to be frank, labor unions have been a failing entity for decades.
I think the real take-home lesson about the Walker victory – and the campaign that secured his return to Madison – will have to do with the money trail. I think Scott Walker’s successful bid to retain his governorship proves not only that “to the victor goes the spoils,” but its inverse as well: to him who receives the spoils goes the victory. Donations by big, out-of-state contributors – individuals citizens and corporations alike – helped guarantee that Walker’s message was heard far more loudly and far more clearly than his challenger’s. This election proves that money is the ultimate source of influence and power – and that the person who controls the money usually controls the message.