But while the activists chanted, the governor went to work. He raked in a record $31 million to defend his seat, most of which came from out-of-state donors. Republicans poured that cash into a robust ground game, blanketing the airwaves with ads and making more than 2.5 million phone calls to energize supporters. “They can protest,” Wisconsin GOP spokesman Ben Sparks says of Walker’s opponents. “They’ve got us beat on that. But that’s about all they’ve got us beat on.”
By charging straight at his critics, Wisconsin may actually be moving closer to the Republican column. Having assembled a seamless campaign to defend their imperiled star, party elders hope that his survival could foreshadow Romney’s ability to ride a similar coalition of fiscal conservatives, Tea Partyers and heavyweight donors to an upset in the state in November. While Republicans haven’t won Wisconsin on the presidential level since 1984, George W. Bush nearly pulled off the feat twice, and Romney is only a step or two behind Barack Obama in recent polls.
Walker, meanwhile, has proved equal parts ideologue and tactician. In January 2011, just weeks before presenting his “budget repair” bill, he met with Diane Hendricks, a Wisconsin roofing tycoon who would become a top benefactor of his recall-defense fund. The way to change the state’s political culture, Walker told Hendricks, was to “divide and conquer” its unions. Walker shrewdly opted to exempt cops and firefighters, two groups that skew Republican and enjoy broad public support. While many public-safety workers joined prounion protests, Walker sidestepped some of the backlash that bruised Ohio’s John Kasich in his attempt to curb collective bargaining. History suggests Walker has the advantage, and not just because of his fundraising haul. Only twice have sitting governors been recalled: North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003.