Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday is a big moment for Mitt Romney. But you’d never really know it.
Romney is on the verge of all-but-officially taking the GOP nomination on the strength of a growing delegate lead and impressive array of endorsements. But the Wisconsin contest, where Romney is favored despite starting behind Rick Santorum in polls last month, also happens to be taking place in the only primary state so far where the presidential battle is an afterthought. Instead, Wisconsin is dominated by Gov. Scott Walker’s recall battle and the ongoing legal fight over the controversial labor law that precipitated it.
“Frankly, the presidential primary is being well overshadowed by the recall election,” Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul told TPM. “People are just so hyper-focused on this recall that the presidential election is really just a distant second in most activists’ and voters’ minds, not just on my side of the aisle but with Democrats as well.”
This week, the state officially certified the petition campaign to recall Walker, setting a June 5 date for the election that Democrats had gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures in order to force. The upcoming vote is the pinnacle of a yearlong struggle between Republicans on one side and labor activists and Democrats on the other over Walker’s successful push for a law limiting collective bargaining rights last year. But that law has faced an intense legal challenge that is coming to a head this month as well. Last week, a federal judge declared parts of it unconstitutional.
It’s not just the labor sector where tensions are running high. In a mirror of the national GOP’s social issues agenda, Walker has pushed to defund Planned Parenthood and enact new restrictions on abortion coverage. On Sunday, a homemade explosive went off outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, though no one was harmed and no serious damage to the building. The motives for the attack are not known. Rick Santorum, who is staunchly anti-abortion, personally condemned the attack.
“I think it’s a state at this point that is used to political chaos,” said Kelly Steele, communications director for labor coalition We Are Wisconsin. The state’s internal conflict is a rallying point for progressives all over the country, which helps explain the outsize attention it’s receiving, Steele said.
“The recall fight certainly has national implications, given that national right-wing groups that bought and paid for Scott Walker have declared — after their black eye in Ohio — that they will do, say and spend whatever it takes to build a firewall around Wisconsin,” he said.
Walker’s travails have made him a martyr in national GOP circles, and both Santorum and Romney are doing their best to align themselves with him as they tour the state. Romney declared Walker a “hero” on Monday; Santorum called on locals to “lead and defend these two great public officials,” referring to Walker and the state lieutenant governor. Santorum has also recorded robocalls supporting Walker. Walker has not endorsed in the presidential race.
“When you talk with friends or political insiders, they don’t have a horse in the race. They’re just not paying attention to it, it’s not on their radar screen,” said state Rep. Michelle Litjens (R). She was a national delegate to the GOP convention in 2008 and said she’s been involved in her county party since the early 1990s. But despite her interest and her position in the legislature, Litjens told TPM the recalls have kept her too preoccupied to get involved in the presidential race. “I’ve been so focused on state politics that when people have called for my endorsement I just say, ‘I’m sorry I’m just staying out of this one’ because I’m just so focused on what’s going on in the state.”
Lost in Wisconsin’s madness, however, is that the state looks poised to give Romney a huge victory right as his campaign is finally clawing its way into “presumptive nominee” territory. Romney is currently leading polls despite trailing Santorum only weeks earlier and is heading into Tuesday with a slew of crucial endorsements from many of the biggest names in the Republican Party. Among them: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his father, former president George H.W. Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House Budget Committee chairman who is currently leading the GOP into battle behind another explosive budget he crafted that would transform Medicare into a voucher system.
“I think the people know Santorum is better,” Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman, a Santorum supporter, told TPM, “but the blizzard of endorsements and money might carry Romney through.”
Romney’s rivals aren’t taking this coronation sitting down. This week, Santorum released easily his toughest ad yet against Romney, comparing him directly to President Obama. And both he and Newt Gingrich, neither of whom have a realistic chance of clinching a majority of delegates even if they surge over the final stretch, are openly talking up plans to continue all the way to what they hope will be a contested convention.
Nonetheless, Romney is getting the kinds of press that, combined with a commanding delegate lead, one would expect from a candidate on the verge of securing the nomination. Republican voters, even if they aren’t too enthused about it, are telling pollsters they view the contest as all but over.