Wisconsin primary: Step 1 in a post-Walker recovery

MILWAUKEE - Within minutes after it became clear on May 8 that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett had handily won the Democratic nomination to face GOP Gov. Scott Walker on June 5, the largest state public union - long regarded as the most doubtful about Barrett -- blasted out a group email: "Unlike Scott Walker, we believe in democracy. AFSCME Wisconsin wholeheartedly supports Tom Barrett."

So much for the Republican and establishment media effort to concoct a fight.

In a way it was a shame that in the steady drumbeat about turnout pursuing the best recall candidates, all the poll-chosen Democrats advanced and nothing spectacular or unexpected happened. Think of how much the right-wing strategists detest surprises and never know how to handle the unexpected.

Voters who liked the respected second-place finisher, state legislator Kathleen Falk, also thought it poetic if a woman destroyed Walker in the June 5 recall election. That's because his actions just before Easter had just sought to destroy her gender. Walker signed laws squashing health services for women and erasing the state version of the Lilly Ledbetter law that let women sue for pay discrimination by employers.

Barrett won 58.2 percent, to 34.2 percent for Falk, with three other candidates far behind. Walker beat a token challenger 97-3 percent. There were 670,278 Democratic primary voters, and 646,458 on the GOP side.

The results also produced a satisfaction expressed by many voters, including union ones - and not just because Barrett is the best known and most federally savvy candidate, one whose expertise the state will need to recover from Walker's reign.

Voters also felt an apology and a do-over was due to Barrett for their lack of turnout when he ran for governor against Walker in 2010. Back then, few paid much attention to state laws or thought an extreme, tone-deaf "my way or the highway" governor could make such a costly daily difference in their lives. Now they know better.

Now they look at Walker's mere 1,128,941 votes in 2010 - barely over half of all votes cast -- and wonder what strange mandate he keeps referring to when he campaigns against workers, against unions, and for his right-wing agenda.

Falk, state official Doug LaFollette and Kathleen Vinehout all proved in debates far more responsible than Walker and hardly extreme in ideology, just concerned about repair. Any disagreements were about strategy, so all have committed to helping Barrett win and all clearly understand that nursing the state back to economic health and fairness can't happen overnight.

"Beating him (Walker) is just the first step," noted Vinehout, a state senator keenly aware of the task facing the Democrats to restore balanced representation in the administration and legislature after some twisted redistricting games by the GOP. An enthusiastic Barrett in his victory speech was blunter: "We cannot fix Wisconsin as long as Scott Walker is the governor."

Usually it takes ideological conflict to drive election turnout. Yet even without competitive ferocity the turnout was higher than many expected - 670,000 among the four Democrats. The numbers revealed a steady statewide interest in recalling Walker that extends even to districts where there was no separate recall contest - and even in counties that everyone concedes are dominated by Republicans.

There had been some worry about GOP mischief in fielding fake leftists, given the unusual primary rules that allowed a voter to choose the token GOP gubernatorial contest for Walker but then cross over to vote in the Democrats' lieutenant governor primary or in the four Democratic senate primaries seeded with Republican candidates.

Madison Fire Fighter Mahlon Mitchell, president of the state Fire Fighters association, won the right to face GOP incumbent Rebecca Kleefisch for lieutenant governor on June 5. Mitchell got 395,944 votes, or more than 52 percent, despite some obvious cross-over mischief: Fake Dem Isaac Weix drew 197.052 votes in that three-way contest. Analysts said there were few if any real Democrats among Weix's tally.

Though Racine results were slow coming in, former Sen. John Lehman easily survived to oust his District 21 usurper, GOP Van Wanggaard. Rep. Donna Seidel won handily in District 29, where she will take on the GOP replacement for resigned Sen. Pam Galloway, Rep. Jerry Petrowski.

Former Democratic Rep. Kristin Dexter in District 23 will take on GOP Sen. Terry Moulton while a lively political novice representing the strong new force of recall activists, Lori Compas, is proving a threat to the GOP state senate leader, Scott Fitzgerald in traditional GOP District 13.

All those elections are June 5, though a lot of Democrats laughingly hope Republicans take the advice of their leader, GOP national chairman Reince Preibus, a Wisconsin native, who called on them to protect Scott Walker on "June 6."

The Democrats know the real D-Day.

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