In one of the busiest election days of 2012 and one of the most historic, voters in Wisconsin decided not to recall their Republican governor who set off a national debate by curtailing collective bargaining rights for state public employees.
In a blow to organized labor, Wisconsin voters opted to let Republican Governor Scott Walker keep his job rather than have Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, take over the remainder of Walker's term.
Walker once again bested Barrett whom he defeated in a regular election two years ago. As Stateline illustrated in yesterday's Infographic, Walker was only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall and the first to survive one.
Walker struck a more conciliatory tone election night, telling supporters that he hoped to soon bring Democratic and Republican lawmakers together to meet over brats, burgers and beer, and he cut off the crowd when they booed a mention of his opponent, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Meanwhile, Democrats appeared to have assumed control of the state Senate with results posted early Wednesday, the Journal Sentinel also reported.
The recall was the most expensive in Wisconsin history, with more than $63.5 million spent, largely by out-of-state sources, according to findings from the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
As The New York Times has reported, Wisconsin, once known for progressive policy, has become the most politically polarized state in the nation. Walker's collective bargaining measure prompted large-scale demonstrations last year at the state Capitol, not to mention more than a dozen state senators fleeing to Illinois to avoid a vote on the bill.
But as Politico noted, the issue of collective bargaining had fallen to the wayside in the campaign to replace Walker. Democrats focused on Walker's tactics and ethics, rather than the collective-bargaining debate. The party's nominee, Barrett, “wears the fact that he wasn't labor's top choice for the ticket as a badge of honor,” Politico reported, hoping to draw support from independent voters who aren't fond of unions.
For Republicans, Walker's win gives them momentum to continue to try to rein in government spending and union power. For Democrats, a Barrett victory would have given them a second significant win at the polls after Ohio voters last year repealed a new law there pushed by Republican Governor John Kasich that likewise limited bargaining rights for state workers.
Wisconsin also had the nation's first recall election of a lieutenant governor and here too voters decided to keep Rebecca Kleefisch in that post. Three of the four Republican incumbent state senators who were recalled appeared to have kept their jobs, The Associated Press reported, but final results weren't available.
Results in Montana and California
While the Wisconsin recall drew most of the headlines, yesterday also was primary day for state legislative races in six other states, with California, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota deciding their candidates for the general election.
In Montana, voters also had to decide on candidates for this fall's gubernatorial contest to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, who is term-limited. Voters there picked Attorney General Steve Bullock as the Democratic nominee for governor and former U.S. Representative Rick Hill as the GOP nominee, according to the state election board latest tally.
California's primary was significant because of the ballot measures that voters considered and for a new way that candidates for office were selected.
On ballot measures, Californians accepted shortening current legislative term limits from 14 years to 12 years. Legislators, who can now serve only six years in the State Assembly and eight years in the Senate, would be able to continue to split that time across chambers or spend their entire 12-year legislative career in one chamber, which is not currently allowed.
But the other statewide ballot measure was too close to call. That measure calls for increasing the state's cigarette tax by a $1 to $1.87 a pack and use the revenue for cancer research, smoking cessation programs and law enforcement.
California's primary also was significant because of ballot measures in San Diego and San Jose that asked voters to consider cutting public pension benefits for city employees hired in the future. The rising cost of retirement benefits is contributing to the budget problems facing California's state and local governments.
In San Diego and San Jose, voters overwhelmingly approved measures to cut retirement benefits for government workers, The AP reported. The measure in San Diego will move city employees —except police recruits — from the traditional defined benefit pension plan to a 401(k)-style, defined contribution system similar to that offered by many private companies. Current city workers would keep their fixed pension benefits but their salaries would be frozen for five years.
San Jose voters likewise approved limiting retirement benefits for newly hired city employees, increasing contributions from current and future workers and allowing city officials to suspend the annual cost-of-living increases during financial emergencies, such as the one the city currently is experiencing. Current workers could choose between keeping their existing benefits, with higher contributions, or accepting a cut in their retirement checks but contributing less. The measure also would tighten the eligibility requirements for disability pensions.
The San Diego and San Jose votes also were noteworthy because both allowed city residents to decide directly what level of retirement benefits their public employees should receive. In most states, the legislature or city government determines the benefits.
Yesterday's primary in California used a new “top-two” primary system that put all candidates for the legislature, Congress and statewide elected offices on a single primary ballot, regardless of party, making some races more competitive than they would otherwise be. The top-two vote-getters in each race will face off in November.
Stateline's Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.