With less than a week left before a bitterly fought and closely watched recall election in Wisconsin, figures in both national and state parties say the contest is a crucial proxy fight that could shape the November general election in the state.
Both the Walker's business-backed Republican allies and his labor-backed foes are scrambling in last-ditch effort to turn out voters, as polls indicate that Walker has a slight edge. And whoever wins could hold the advantage in November in a state President Barack Obama won handily in 2008, but which appears to have swung right over a difficult and volatile four years. The winner next Tuesday will have both momentum and a friendly chief executive in the statehouse, and both Mitt Romney's and Obama's campaigns are looking to convert the Walker and anti-Walker organizations into turnkey campaigns in what could be an unexpected toss-up state.
"Right now we are all recall, all the time,” said Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski, who worked in Wisconsin during the 2008 race, adding that the experience is leaving their operation stronger than ever. “We have a jumpstart on organizing in Wisconsin [for November]."
Though a media narrative has emerged that puts the Wisconsin Republicans’ strength in their money and TV airtime and the Democrats’ in their ground game, Wisconsin Republicans maintain it is their voter outreach efforts that what will win them the race.
"This is the most comprehensive and effective ground game in the history of the state,” said Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Benjamin Sparks. “Republicans have never had a ground game this massive.”
Sparks said that since January, the pro-Walker side of the recall had made more than 2 million voter contact phone calls, and 200,000 on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The party has 20 victory centers and “thousands of volunteers,” he said.
“These offices will stay open in full swing in support of Mitt Romney [after the recall,]” Sparks said. “Already from these recalls we've seen it go from Obama winning the state by 14 points to it being a toss up."
The Wisconsin Democrats also tout their organization in the state, citing efforts by the dozens of groups participating in the recall effort. A memo from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin puts the number of field offices at 44, and promises “a total of 1,861,137 voter contacts in the just last 4 days of the election. These contacts are composed of 990,648 door knocks and 870,489 phone calls.”
Asked if these measures will carry over into the general election, Wisconsin Democratic spokesman Graeme Zielinski said “Absolutely, yes. Obviously, it won't be of the same size until we're back in the thick of things, but we will keep the framework and do everything we can to retain the volunteers and their energy.”
But Democrats, eyeing a new poll showing Walker seven points ahead of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett appear less confident that the recall fight has strengthened their side.
“Win or lose, it’s going to be over-interpreted and over-analyzed by political insiders and the media,” Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “Regardless of what happens, it’s going to be a very competitive election in November for the presidential race, the Senate race and on down the ballot. “
Republicans struck a more confident note in a different press call that same day.
“If Walker wins next Tuesday — and we’re very confident he will — Obama is going to have a much tougher road ahead in Wisconsin in the fall,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters on Wednesday.
The Romney campaign is betting on the recall election as a prototype for their November strategy in the state — an appealing Electoral College pickup for the GOP — but isn’t planning on aggressively campaigning their until after the recall drama subsides.
“We’re going to be hiring as many of the recall people as we can,” said one Romney aide. “They know the state better than anyone.”
Asked whether the recall race has any impact on the general election, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told NBC News’ Chuck Todd Wednesday that she didn’t think so.
“This is a gubernatorial race about a guy who is getting recalled,” she said, adding “It’s not about president Obama at the top of the ticket, and it’s certainly not about Mitt Romney.”
But Cutter did emphasize that the Obama campaign is working closely with the DNC and the state party to help Barrett, noting that they’re lending “significant” resources to the recall effort.
“Whether it’s people organizing on the ground, using Obama for America organization — which is one of the best in the country, and certainly very strong in Wisconsin — raising money for Barrett, sending surrogates on the ground for Barrett…,” she said, outlining the Obama campaign’s support.
That support hasn’t been matched by the Democratic National Committee, who haven’t come close to matching the same funds as the RNC and earned public rebuke from an anonymous Wisconsin Democratic Party source in the Washington Post for not doing enough for the recall effort.
Obama hasn't travelled to the state to support Barrett — and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that he was unsure if the president endorsed him today. In fact, Obama gave Barrett the nod weeks ago.
But Washington Democrats are paying attention to the fight, even if some view it as a lost cause. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz helped with fundraising in Wisconsin this week, and has called the recall a “dry run” for the Obama campaign in the general election.