Let's give Wisconsin voters some credit. While others try to find easy right-vs.-left explanations for Gov. Scott Walker's decisive victory, Badger State voters appeared to be worried less about politics than about their state's purse.
That fiscal anxiety reflects a national trend. During the 1990s economic boom, state and local governments awarded generous health and pension benefits to union workers. Now the pensions and the rest are being paid from shrinking revenues in a sluggish economy. The result is a fiscal crisis in cities and states with deepening deficits and threats to public services, ranging from police and firefighters to parks and libraries.
Walker stands out among other deficit cutters only in his bold audacity, fortified famously by the billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch. Their family helped Walker get elected and become a national star among ultraconservatives opposed to public unions.
Instead of merely working with the unions, who offered to reduce state spending by raising their health care and pension fees, Walker moved shortly after he took office last year to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. His aim, applauded by the Kochs, was clear: break the unions and weaken their ability to raise money and turn out the vote on Election Day for Democrats.
All of that is well known. What should alarm union leaders is how little Walker's overreaching got in the way of his 53 percent to 46 percent victory over his challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Exit polls showed union voters supported Barrett by a 71 to 29 percent margin anyway over Walker, but their coattails didn't even reach deep into their own families. Barely half — 51 percent — of the nonmember voters who live with a union member voted for Barrett. Voters with no union ties supported Walker by about 20 points.
And let's not diminish the significance of Walker's war chest. His campaign raised seven times as much money as Barrett's, much of it from the same deep-pocket business interests that give to Republican “super PACs” in this presidential election year. Money talks and, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, it talks in today's big league politics more than it ever did.