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LA CROSSE, Wis (Reuters) - A day after Wisconsin held the largest round of recall elections in U.S. history, analysts parsing the bruising, expensive and inconclusive battles have a gloomy prediction for the rest of the country.
Get used to it, the 2012 national election will be nasty.
Politics, said Mordecai Lee, a governmental affairs professor at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is now "a battle of inches, it is a battle that never ends, it is a battle to the death."
Wisconsin's recalls, and the fight earlier this year over the union rights of public-sector workers that triggered them, have highlighted the wide gulf that separates Republican and Democrat voters nationwide.
The results, which neither party can claim as a clear-cut victory, have also exposed the lack of stability and predictability in U.S. government -- a reason S&P cited last week in downgrading the U.S. AAA credit rating.
Republicans won four of the six Wisconsin recall elections on Tuesday, just enough to cling to a state Senate majority.
"What we saw yesterday was basically a very divisive election to conclude a very divisive recall process in response to a very divisive set of policies enacted by the new Republican governor and legislature in Wisconsin," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor.
He sees the polarization continuing through 2012, a feature of American politics since the red-state-versus-blue divide of George W. Bush's disputed presidential election in 2000.
The Wisconsin fight was triggered by Republican Governor Scott Walker's controversial, and successful, campaign to strip teachers, nurses, and other government employees of collective bargaining power they had enjoyed for five decades.
It was quickly joined by national groups -- the Tea Party on the right, and organized labor on the left -- who saw Wisconsin as a first skirmish of the 2012 election and poured activists and money into the state.
The result after seven of the nine recall elections scheduled for this summer is pretty much a stalemate.
It is impossible to say exactly how much money has been spent in Wisconsin over the past six months to get the state to this frustrating point.
Mike Buelow, research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign contributions in state races, estimates that the candidates and outside groups have spent as much as $37 million over the past few months on the recalls alone. He said this is "really astronomical for Wisconsin" and more than double the total spent on all 116 races in last year's elections.
"What it really says to me is we're headed for a highly polarized, divisive national election that will break all records - at least for spending. I mean $30 million for a handful of state Senate recalls? It's incredible," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The lack of a clear victory could setback efforts to recall Walker next year, analysts said.
"The unions were hoping for a massive uprising against Governor Walker," said John Pitney, a professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.
"That just didn't happen. The results don't necessarily prove widespread support for curtailing public-sector bargaining rights, but they do suggest that ... at a time of high unemployment and deep budget cuts, most voters don't put the highest priority on the economic interests of public employees."
Of more immediate concern are two remaining recall elections next week in Wisconsin, both of them trying to unseat Democrats who opposed the union law.
"Clearly the Democrats aren't feeling as giddy as they were 24 to 48 hours ago," said Lee, of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
"I think they realize that these last two recalls against Democratic incumbents are real races, are serious races. As always in Wisconsin politics, one has to give the incumbent an edge. It is likely the two Democratic incumbents will win their recalls but it is not a slam dunk," he said.
Writing and additional reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune