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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fair
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How to win a recall election
The successful Walker challenger will appeal to independents
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It's all about the 4.1%.

Any Democrat running against Scott Walker in the recall election will get about 46% of the vote by virtue of the fact that they're not him. And the governor will get 46% on the other side because he is who he is.

So the question for the Democrats is: Who can win a majority of the 8% or so of Wisconsin voters who are up for grabs?

The challenge is in the independent and sometimes schizophrenic nature of Wisconsin politics. We're the state that elected Robert La Follette and later Joe McCarthy.

Socialists ran Milwaukee for half a century, but gave way to an increasingly reactionary Mayor Henry Maier. We're the home of the distinguished Gaylord Nelson, but he was defeated by the somewhat less distinguished Bob Kasten.

Russ Feingold won his first unlikely victory by appealing to progressives and independents, as did Bill Proxmire. But Feingold went down to Ron Johnson, who wasn't involved in politics at all until he spoke at a Tea Party rally and, from what I can tell, also hasn't been involved in politics since.

Al Gore and John Kerry won here, but by less than the number of people who show up at Camp Randall for a high school playoff game.

The reason we seem to rock back and forth so much along the political spectrum is that independents are like water. When they slosh one way or the other they slosh hard in that direction.

So the winning Democrat will be one who is seen as independent-minded, someone who can make a credible claim to having the interests of the whole state at heart. A candidate beholden to big unions is no more appealing to independent voters than one who answers to the Koch brothers.

Wisconsin is not primarily a union state. It's an independent state. Only 14% of Wisconsin workers belong to a union, down from 21% two decades ago. Moreover, the big public employee unions (WEAC and AFSCME) are not all that popular with voters. People might love their kid's teacher, but not necessarily his union. Police, fire and trade unions do better with independents, and most of those unions have been smart to stay out of the race until the Democratic field was set.

I talk to lots of people across the political spectrum, and uniformly they believe that WEAC and AFSCME blundered by requiring a pledge to veto any state budget that didn't restore bargaining rights as a condition of their support.

What if that budget was good for the state in every other way - increased support for education, reversed the cuts on the UW, strengthened environmental protections and more, but didn't restore collective bargaining? Would a responsible governor really veto that budget?

And what if the Assembly continues in Republican hands, as is likely? The Republican radicals there would like nothing better than a budget standoff that paralyzes a government they hate anyway.

Even prominent Democrats and other union officials I've talked to feel that way, and many rank-and-file voters have told me the same thing. The big public employee unions seem oblivious to the rule of 4.1% and the independent nature of Wisconsinites. Wisconsin voters like politicians like Robert La Follette and Gaylord Nelson and Bill Proxmire, all of whom bucked their own party bosses, and yet the unions seem to want to offer them Jimmy Hoffa instead.

That's why Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl had so much appeal, but they didn't run.

All of this is why Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett might just be the guy to win the 4.1%. The very fact that WEAC and AFSCME are not supporting him in the May 8 primary may paint him as the free agent who will appeal to independents. Inadvertently, the big unions may have helped identify the candidate who can win.

Of course Barrett will be pro-union and of course he'll fight to get collective bargaining back, but he has a better chance of being able to talk about other issues like Walker's dismal record on jobs and the environment that will sway the independents.

And the usual rap on Barrett - that he doesn't have the proverbial "fire in the belly" - just isn't accurate. He did well the last time he took on Walker in 2010. Barrett got 47% in a Republican tsunami. You have to like his chances this time around if he tries again. His polling shows him to be the strongest candidate against Walker, and his name recognition hasn't faded that much in the 18 months since the last election.

Whoever the Democrats pick to run against Scott Walker, to have a chance of winning he or she has to be a candidate who shows the same strong independent streak that they see in themselves.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison; he has endorsed Tom Barrett. He blogs as Citizen Dave at

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