Scott Walker’s recall victory in Wisconsin has been described on both sides as a turning point in the fight between labor and conservatives. But while the governor soaks up the GOP praise that’s been heaped on him since his win, it’s still unclear how many gubernatorial candidates will openly follow Walker’s lead.
Two Republican hopefuls in states that, like Wisconsin, went strongly for President Obama in 2008, are taking very divergent paths in how their campaigns are handling Walker’s ascendance.
In Washington, Attorney General Rob McKenna, the leading GOP candidate in the open governor’s race, is rapidly distancing himself from Walker’s crackdown on collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions.
“Collective bargaining isn’t the problem in our state. It’s the people doing the bargaining who have been the problem,” McKenna said in a recent interview, pledging to be a better negotiator than his opponents.
McKenna sounded a similar note last year when the Wisconsin labor protests were in full swing, insisting that he’d talk to unions instead of “terrorizing them.”
What’s perhaps most surprising about his aggressive effort to keep Walker at arm’s length is that he was hardly considered pro-labor until recently. In 2010, for example, McKenna said in a speech that collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions were “dangerous” and cited Franklin Roosevelt in opposing their existence. Despite McKenna’s decisive shift over the last year, Democrats in the state are explicitly making the connection to Walker, telling voters on their party website, “If you love what Scott Walker’s done to Wisconsin, you’ll love Rob McKenna as our governor.”
In New Hampshire, however, one of the Republican candidates for governor, Ovide LaMontagne, has been running in the opposite direction. This week, a Patch reporter quoted LaMontagne telling voters that he’d be “Scott Walker on steroids” if elected, prompting state Democrats to sound the alarm in a press release on Tuesday. A spokesman for LaMontagne did not respond to a request for clarification on his comment.
LaMontagne has not directly addressed the same collective-bargaining issues Walker took up, but he’s made “right to work” legislation restricting unions’ ability to attract new members a centerpiece of his campaign.
“I think we need to be a pro-growth, pro-business state and the best way to do it is to pass ‘right to work,’” he told a gathering of Republicans last month, even as he acknowledged it was a “divisive issue” even within his own party. His candidate website lists passing such a law as one of his top priorities. If he were to succeed, he’d be the first governor in the Northeast to do so.
In general, candidates are mostly staying under the radar on Wisconsin’s labor fight, focusing their message jobs and the economy much as the national candidates are today. It may be some time before the true impact of Walker’s victory is felt — after all, even the Wisconsin governor himself didn’t campaign on curtailing collective bargaining rights, raising the issue only after his election.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.