Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Walker Won

Democrats blame money, but might examine their muddled message.

By - Jun 8th, 2012 09:25 am
Scott Walker Inauguration Day

Scott Walker

No sooner had Democrat Tom Barrett lost the recall election than the Democrats began blasting the big moneyed interests. As the New York Times reported, President Obama’s Wisconsin state director, Tripp Wellde, “blamed what he called ‘the flood of secret and corporate money spent on behalf of Scott Walker’ for fueling a ‘politics of division’ in the state that overwhelmed Mr. Barrett.”

With all due respect, Tripp, that’s nonsense.

Sure, Barrett was at a disadvantage, with just $4 million to spend versus Walker’s $30 million. But even if the money was equal, Barrett couldn’t have won, because he never made a case to recall a sitting governor.

Back in the fall, when the Democrats first launched their recall effort, the problems with their approach become obvious. They justified the recall by talking about Walker’s poor record on jobs and cuts in education funding. But did they really expect voters would recall a governor just 18 months after his election for not increasing jobs enough, or over a policy disagreement on spending?

Everyone in the state knew the party had targeted Walker because he effectively eliminated collective bargaining for public workers. The only way to win the recall was to convince voters Walker not only took the wrong action, but did this in a way that was flagrantly anti-Democratic and therefore worthy of a recall.

Instead the party tip-toed around the issue. Barrett was fairly effective — and as fiery as we will probably every see him — accusing Walker of fomenting an ideological civil war, of dividing family members and friends. Most voters probably experienced some of these arguments, and wished Walker had done more to reach out to the other side. Moreover, polls taken back when Republicans first passed Act 10 show a majority of people opposed the elimination of collective bargaining rights.

But as Walker noted, Barrett’s suggested course of action — to reverse Act 10 — would simply recharge the same arguments and reopen the same civic wounds. Why do this unless Barrett could suggest a middle ground: some way to compromise that would reform the system or limit bargaining rights in some way?

In the background of this entire discussion was the issue of how government benefits had been abused. Notably, the Milwaukee County pension plan, which gave a long list of county veterans payouts of $300,000 to $1 million (and this was in addition to a monthly pension they will draw for life). Or the plan passed in 1998 by the Milwaukee School board, which gave a second pension to Milwaukee teachers already covered by the generous state pension plan. This increased the lifetime retirement payment for certain teachers (as with the county, a privileged group of veterans) by as much as 400 percent.

Then there was the 1999 law championed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson that sweetened an already generous state pension plan, at a long-term cost of $5.5 billion. (Imagine if that money had been available when Walker began talking about the budget deficit) Thompson’s plan, too, was skewed to deliver the big benefits to insiders, the employees with the biggest salaries and longest tenure.  The lifetime value of Thompson’s already generous pension, for instance, grew by $111,000. Numerous UW officials gained a $7,000 to $12,000 sweetener in their annual retirement payment.

Generous union contracts enabled 10 state corrections workers to collect $59,000 to $103,000 in annual overtime payments, all in addition to their regular pay. Ditto for the seven Madison bus drivers who each earned more than $100,000 annually, as a result of overtime payments of $40,000-$109,000 a year.  None of these abuses sat well with John and Jane Q. Public.

There’s no doubt conservatives exaggerated what the average government worker or teacher earns. Most public employees in Wisconsin are not unreasonably compensated. But there have been abuses, which laid the groundwork for an attack on all public workers, and for Walker’s sweeping reforms. And as the months rolled on, and no Democrat came forward with a counter-proposal, voters began to move more toward Walker’s position. Tuesday’s exit polls showed 52 percent of voters favored eliminating collective bargaining rights.

Add to this that 60% of voters in the exit polls said recalls should be for official misconduct only, and you can see Barrett’s problem: he needed to get more than a majority to agree with him on the issues, because some who disagreed with Walker’s policies didn’t feel this was justification for a recall.

Nor, it appears, did the ever-expanding John Doe investigation against Walker have much impact on the race. It might have, if Democrats had made that the reason for the recall. But voters knew the recall had been launched over collective bargaining rights for public employees — and then watched as Barrett and the Democrats tried to somehow divert them from the issue. Not a winning strategy, it turns out.


27 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Walker Won”

  1. Ben says:

    Thank you for this insightful article, Mr. Murphy! Whereas I think Walker went too far with Act 10, the abuses of government workers in this state needed to be stopped, so some sort of reform was necessary. Democrats have no spines. I wish they’d be bold and make a solid stand on an issue. There is no shame in taking the middle ground, which was entirely appropriate in the case of collective bargaining rights.

  2. getch says:

    Great article! If Tommy Thompson is the GOP candidate for senate, it will be interesting to see if Tammy Baldwin brings points like this to light.

  3. Rob says:

    Thank you for writing this. Most of the articles on here, with the exception of some of the true development-related topics (which, I might add, have been sparse as of late), include such a strong liberal slant. It can be overbearing at times. This, however, was an honest and thoughtful piece. The election wasn’t about John Doe or corporate money, it was about the people being fed up with abuse of taxpayer money and public (not private) unions. You could argue that Walker went too far, too quick, but he went somewhere. We needed to go somewhere, and Barrett had no plan for that. When a gubernatorial candidate has no response to the question “What’s your plan?”, I think this State’s citizens are smart enough to think that he/she is not a good gubernatorial candidate. (And simply repealing Act 10 is not a plan; Barrett had no clue what he’d do if Act 10 ever did get repealed.)

  4. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Best article I’ve ever read on the problem. I’m starting to think the recall did a lot more hard than good – to real issues – especially the urban issues discussed on this website.

  5. Alex says:

    This is probably the most convincing assessment of the election result that I’ve read so far – I hope NYT picks it up but they’ve probably retreated to the coasts by now. Anyway, I agree with the political analysis and that the pension shenanigans are outrageous, but I’d like to point out that in the vast majority of cases large overtime payments actually save taxpayers money. This is due to the small detail that these payments are in return for an extraordinary amount of labor. Transit and corrections are both labor-intensive industries, and if these people hadn’t worked so much overtime the state would likely have paid more to hire additional employees. So it’s a stretch to call it an abuse, unless they got more than time-and-a-half for their labor.

  6. Scott says:

    You missed on this one and you are contributing to the misinformation that has been propagated by the Walker camp.
    True, there are abuses of the retirement system and if what you say about the Milwaukee plan is accurate there are some things that need to be investigated!
    Under the State system you can choose to take a lump sum pay out or the monthly but Not Both!
    The money that poured into Wisconsin for this election was staggering and very one sided. The right hammered on the out of state union money and out of state influence brought in for Barrett but ignored the fact that it was a small amount of money by comparison to what Walker received!
    All the money spent demonstrated that if you repeat something often enough, people will believe it!
    The Democrats needed to get a message together and stick with it but I guess that is not as easy to do when you have real grass roots support and not the organization that ALEC brings to the fight with advertizing and talking points prepared while they write the legislation.

  7. Kara says:

    Maybe the democratic senators shouldn’t have hid out in Illinois? They totally lost my respect.

  8. Charles R says:

    I don’t think you get it. It’s all about the money. So are the Dems and Republicans!!!

  9. Dave says:

    ….Bruce should have made the ph. call to the Koch brothers and told them to just match the funds in the Dems campaign fund as the Wisconsin people with their sense of fair play didn’t like the idea behind this recall anyway. But with the big money in play by outta state players…….they didn’t sell Walker to the electorate……they bought a governor. Thank you US Supreme Court.

  10. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Dave – strictly speaking this wasn’t caused by Citizen’s United (though that insanity is likely to make the problem worse)…. this was in fact caused by a loophole in WI law that Walker’s cronies exploited big time.

  11. Garrick Jannene says:

    CNN exit polling showed that 88% of the electorate had already made up their mind who to vote for by April. If we all recall (hah), April was back when Falk and Barrett were just starting to ramp up their campaigns and Walker, the RGA, and friends had already been on the airwaves sowing the seeds of “recalls should only be for ethical misconduct” and other items that would convince independents to not support the recall.

    The point? Sure the massive money advantage helped, but simply put is that the unions and DPW were outplayed. They started with an advantage ( and lost it by taking their eye off the messaging ball as everybody was out collecting signatures. If we take the assumption that they 100% committed to the signature drive and would have been incapable of fighting back on the airwaves at that time, that is when the AFL-CIO, DNC, and others should have stepped in, not in April when it was pretty much over.

    The CNN source:

  12. getch says:

    A true election happens 2014 which is is just over 2 years away. Both sides will follow the same rules. The Dems need to find a respectable candidate that has a doable plan. enough said, move on.

  13. Jay Bullock says:

    This may be the only time ever I get to correct Bruce Murphy about something, but here goes:

    The Milwaukee Public Schools’ “sweetener” wasn’t passed in 1998. It dates from the early 1982, and it was a bonus designed to encourage expensive older teachers to retire early and let younger, cheaper teachers take their places. At the time, the Wisconsin Retirement System offered a pretty rotten deal, and this made retirement attractive–at the time, the hundreds of thousands of bonus money the “sweetener” offered some veterans came not on top of a generous WRS pension, but essentially in lieu of one.

    In 1998, MPS took steps to make the “sweetener” less expensive, and indeed made it kind of a crappy deal for anyone, like me for instance, hired after that date, including making it a lot harder to qualify for the extra pension. Which is okay, as WRS now offers a livable pension by itself.

    Where Murphy blames MPS in 1998 (and lots of other Ghosts of Democrats Past), what MPS did then was actually a smart fiscal move and should not be considered in the same way that we all now think of the Milwaukee County Pension Scandal.

    Earlier this spring, MPS pretty much killed the “sweetener.” I wrote about all this here:

  14. Juli Kaufmann says:

    I appreciate a political article that includes reader commentary that is not vitriolic nor disrespectful. Thanks Urban Milwaukee and thanks to your readers who comment thoughtfully and intelligently. I am more able to digest diverse points of view when they are presented in a way that encourages consideration and does not trigger defense. This is how we nurture democracy, by seeking to understand our differences, engaging in rigorous but respectful debate, and attempting to sincerely forge a better society.

  15. Bill Sweeney says:

    I’d like to second Juli. It is very refreshing to read a thoughtful analysis followed by thoughtful and respectful comments. This is especially true when we are inundated by shallow, if not deceitful political advertising. The commentary on JSonline is also discouraging to read. When more and more people are getting their information from sources that already just reinforce their prejudices, independent, measured analysis becomes more important than ever. Neither side in the recent election or in any of the controversies besetting our country have a monopoly on truth. Anyone interested in examining this further can go to and click on the show: How do liberals and conservatives see the world? which is a conversation with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist.
    Unions should not ignore this wake up call to take a long look in the mirror. Collective bargaining is a human right under the Charter for Human Rights of the United Nations as it should be, but with rights come responsibilities. Stories about employees being paid for doing nothing, or unions providing legal cover for misbehavior may be exceptions to the rule, but they leave big impressions. Unions need to to learn how to tell their “stories” in new ways in order to recapture the narrative of making life better for working people. It really is remarkable, when you think about it, of how successfully Walker and his confederates were able to portray public employees as villains in the State of Wisconsin’s morality tale. And to do all this just shortly after the economic massacre that was executed on Main street by Wall street suggests just how big a hill there is to climb to restore a vision of a more just and equitable society.

  16. Juli Kaufmann says:

    @Bill Here, here. Very well said, indeed.

  17. Steven Blackwood says:

    Good article, Bruce, but one can’t just dismiss the spending disparity as not having an effect. Some of the ads put on by the Koch-backed machine made Barrett look like nothing more than a low-life criminal. (“What else is he hiding?”) Also, the campaign came down to splitting numbers about job creation or the lack of it. People seemed to overlook the fact that even the numbers that Walker put out (unconfirmed numbers at that) were pretty damned anemic. Plus, how did these new numbers compare to the other states, using the same formula? All of these things are too nuanced in a heated race that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have taken place. Because watch out PRIVATE sector unions. You’re next. An police and fire unions? You’re will also get it in the new Right-to-Work state of Wisconsin.

  18. Mike Bark says:

    The spending disparity is being overblown. Yes, Walker raised more money than Barrett, but that doesn’t count the millions the Unions put into this race. If you watched any TV or listened to the radio the Tom Barrett ads were as numerous as the Barrett ones.

    Mr. Murphy is correct in his analysis, At the end of the day Tom Barrett couldn’t make the case as to why the governor needed to be removed. Was it Act 10? Was it the economy? Was it the war on women?

    Barrett proved himself to be an empty suit again. Yes, he’d love to stay in government the rest of his career and collect numerous pensions, but you get no sense he has any real passion to hold these positions. He ran his campaign much like the way he runs the city. No ideas.

    I know candidates run negative ads because the work, but you have to mix in some positive messages too. YOu have to be able to articulate why someone should vote for you. Barrett couldn’t do that and this time he wasn’t running against a weak candidate like he usually does.

  19. Thurston Howell III says:

    This writer ONLY focuses on the abuses of public sector workers to exemplify the current political climate in WI. Why?
    The media PERPETUALLY focuses on hyperbolic public employee wrong doing, while simultaneously ignoring facts like M&I bank took $200Million Dollars of government money, the Officers of this bank ran it into the ground, driving stock prices down with it, then THEY walk away with a total of $65 Million dollars in Golden Parachute money. Why is the world doesn’t the public and the Media focus on THIS kind of thievery? Instead focuses on a couple of exceptional situations involving public sector employees?

  20. CJ says:

    Great article! I find it constantly frustrating that Republican candidates will go straight to the jugular on issues, where Democratic candidates will tip toe around issues that are right in front of them to present.

  21. john kishline says:

    Bruce, you blew it. You didn’t really piss anyone off. The Democratic message looked backward and, from November to May, all we got to hear were Walker’s messages of tepid contrition and the extremism of these union recall ideas. 50 million can create its own truth. See Lee Atwater, Karl Rove et al. No wonder so many thought the recall was unwarranted. Now we get see if any of it is to be believed. Based on Scotty’s history, I bet not.
    Your kind of reasoned, informed and thoughtful analysis will not cause the desired lip froth and torn hamstrings that local commentary usually seeks, but keep thnking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.

  22. Jim Palmer says:

    I also find it refreshing that we have an objective point of view from Bruce, and I would have expected nothing less. Its refreshing as well to see so many intelligent and articulate comments, from both sides of the fence. After this most contentious election process, I hope we can find harmony among our elected leaders. I don’t think its too much to ask, and my column last week on Milwaukee Magazine’s web site provided that point of view.

  23. Ken Wood says:

    Now that the dust is settling, it’s good to get this perspective. I was afraid Barrett might lose, but never imagined it would be so resoundingly. I can’t quite accept that the money didn’t make a difference, but it’s clear that the Democrats are losing the message game.
    Great analysis and comments thread, both.

  24. Howard Leu says:

    Great article indeed! This election exposes the state Democrats’s inability to campaign on progress and really having a point. Saying that they were outspent is, in my opinion, nothing more than a sore excuse for the defeat. I have yet come across anyone who examines the possibility that disproportionate funds Barrett and Walker raised might be due to recall campaign laws and the advantage of Walker having unlimited amount of donation from individuals. I propose that if Barrett had the same amount of time to fundraise and the same unlimited donation advantage, the spending between the two would be fairly close.

    Forgive me for repeating sentiments that’ve already been shared, but I too enjoy the comments on this thread. This civil, intelligent exchange is oddly rare these days. Thanks, UM.

  25. Bruce hit the nail on the head. After much soul searching, I voted for Scott Walker even though I am a staunch Democrat and believe he went too far. Bruce intelligently and thoroughly captured the reason for my anguished vote. It’s a relief to read an article that makes such good sense out of the whole sorry mess. There is far too much “dirty” in politics. The fact that so many Democrats refused to vote for Tom Barrett is testament to our desire for clean politics; demonstrating our refusal to recall someone who did not deserve it even when we do not agree with his actions.

  26. Kevin says:

    First off, really glad to find Bruce again. Reading Milwaukee Magazine isn’t the same, knowing it’s Bruceless.

    I agree with the article. Money was only a small factor. I’d suggest this electorate was the most informed in Wisconsin history, with 15 months of coverage and analysis of the issue (since Feb 2011) and only ~2 months of the campaign craziness.

    People had a year to make up their minds, prior to the effect of campaign money attempting to switch their vote. If the ads switched the vote 2-3%, that would be generous, and wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

  27. Bruce Thompson says:

    Sorry for the late comment, but I have just returned from out of town. This article addresses an issue that concerned me during the campaign: neither the unions nor Barrett addressed the question of what should replace Act 10, leaving the impression they hoped to go back to the bad old system, only perhaps with more cost sharing. There was never any discussion of how collective bargaining could be made a help rather than a hindrance for a more effective MPS, for instance.

    As one of two school board members to vote against the 1998 MPS pension sweetener, let me clarify what happened. As Jay Bullock notes the second pension was created some years before, apparently at a time when MPS wished to downsize by encouraging early retirement and to fill in a gap in the state pension system. By 1998, MPS enrollment was increasing and the state pension system had been changed to eliminate the gap, but the second pension remained.

    The 1998 changes greatly expanded eligibility for the second pension (eliminating what the union called the “cliff”). At the time, the union argued that this would save money for MPS, if it encouraged senior teachers to retire to be replaced by lower-paid new teachers. Two main reasons why this didn’t work out: the second pension was grossly underfunded and the number of retirees eligible for MPS-funded health benefits greatly expanded, creating an unfunded liability of several billion dollars.

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