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On The Ground In Wisconsin: Lessons From The Winning Side

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is greeted by his Cabinet and staff at the state Capitol in Madison on Wednesday, a day after he defeated Milwaukee's Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, in a recall election.
Andy Manis
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is greeted by his Cabinet and staff at the state Capitol in Madison on Wednesday, a day after he defeated Milwaukee's Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, in a recall election.

Don Taylor, one of Wisconsin's most influential Republicans, had predicted that GOP Gov. Scott Walker would stave off recall challenger Tom Barrett, a Democrat, by a couple of percentage points.

The 8-percentage-point margin of Walker's win Tuesday surprised Taylor, he said Wednesday, as did the support the governor received from voters in households with union members — a surprise he shared with Democrats I spoke with earlier in the day.

But Taylor, longtime Republican chairman in the party's stronghold of Waukesha County, not surprisingly has a different take than do the Democrats on why the election broke the way it did.

His take:

Walker's action on the budget resonated beyond the base: Taylor says he is convinced the governor tapped into the essential frugality of Wisconsinites with his budget cuts and moves to dilute the power of public unions.

"It was the financial aspect of his message — changing over from raising taxes and keeping the benefits flowing," Taylor said during a conversation at the downtown Waukesha bank his father founded and the family still operates. "That was the single biggest thing that motivated voters. From Greece to Illinois to California, people are concerned about where government is taking them."

Walker's actions, he said, have been a reaction to past fiscal policies of both parties.

"The chickens were coming home to roost," Taylor said. "There is the financial realization that you can't get something for nothing."

Walker tapped into resentment of public worker pay and benefits: Taylor says there is a sentiment that "government workers should pay some of their health care and benefits costs in a manner more in line with the rest of society."

He dismisses arguments that the unions had agreed to concessions to do just that, before Walker pursued his rollback of collective bargaining rights.

"Just accepting those concessions would not have solved the problem," Taylor said. "You have to remove some of the powers of the government unions or you're just putting a Band-Aid on it."

The assault on collective bargaining is necessary to allow schools and local governments, he said, to "keep costs down and control their own teachers."

The Tea Party has strengthened the party: Some state Republican parties have been shaken by the emergence of Tea Party factions wanting a piece of the action. Not so in Wisconsin, or at least in the Republican redoubt of Waukesha County, Taylor says.

"The Tea Party is alive and well here," he says.

Taylor likens the movement to the Moral Majority, which began to emerge when he was the new county party chairman in the late 1970s.

"The Moral Majority people were clashing with the Republican Party, but here in Waukesha, the party welcomed them and everybody got along fine."

Welcoming the Tea Party Republicans has strengthened Walker's base, and serves "the betterment of the party," he said.

The "November effect" is uncertain: A Barrett win Tuesday would have been very bad for state Republicans looking to get Wisconsin in the GOP presidential win column for the first time since 1984, Taylor said.

"If Democrats and the unions had won, it would be an adverse thing," he said.

The effect of Walker's win? "I'm not sure," he said. "We still have to earn our own way in the August primary and in the November election, but I do believe there's a real chance Wisconsin could go Republican."

The recall strengthened the party, and the victory has people "exuberant, optimistic." Taylor, who describes himself as Tea Party before there was a Tea Party, had not been an enthusiastic supporter of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but he's warming, with a caveat: "We will work hard to see that there's conservative leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, and then [Romney] will be an enthusiastic conservative."

If Republicans don't end up controlling both chambers? "I think he would bend," Taylor said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.

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