MADISON, Wis. — A divisive leader drove the opposition to extreme measures. The political climate was toxic — with little civil debate or middle ground. The clash ended in a high-risk political showdown that captured the nation’s attention and shaped the next election.
This was the 2012 battle to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, not the 2019 fight to impeach President Donald Trump. But for some who lived through the former, the episodes have clear similarities and a warning for Democrats about overreach and distraction.
“In both cases, they thought just as they were upset about something, everyone was,” Walker said, describing one of his takeaways from the campaign that failed to remove him from office. “Just because your base feels strongly about something doesn’t mean that the majority of other voters do.”
Although moderates declined to join liberals back then in voting to eject Walker, Democrats warn against presuming they’ll break the same way for Trump next year in Wisconsin, a state seen as pivotal in 2020. Voters who were likely wary of undoing Walker’s election via a rare recall face a simpler choice in whether to hand Trump a second term, they say.
“People may not like impeachment, simply because it adds to the drama of his presidency, but that doesn’t mean they are on the fence or sympathetic to Trump,” said Jon Erpenbach, a Democratic Wisconsin state senator.
The Walker recall sprang from a law he signed just months into his first term that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees. Walker didn’t reveal his plan until after he was elected in 2010, and the move sparked massive protests that made Wisconsin the center of a growing national fight over union rights.
Angry activists gathered nearly a million signatures to force the recall. Although Democrats had fought hard against the bill, with some state senators even fleeing the state at one point to avoid a vote, they were initially reluctant to embrace the recall for fear it would hurt then-President Barack Obama’s reelection hopes in 2012.
The recall became a proxy battle ahead of the presidential election, with Democrats arguing that Walker unfairly targeted teachers, nurses and other public employees to weaken the unions that traditionally supported Democratic candidates. Walker argued that his proposal shouldn’t have been a surprise since he campaigned on forcing public employees to pay more for their benefits while capping how much they could bargain for in raises. He also argued that it wasn’t proper to use the extraordinary option of recall over a policy dispute.
Walker ultimately won the recall election in June 2012, becoming a conservative hero on his way to a short-lived run for president in 2015. In a testament to Wisconsin’s political division, just five months after Walker won the recall vote, Obama cruised to victory in Wisconsin on his way to reelection.
Trump is accused of improperly withholding U.S. military aid that Ukraine needed to resist Russian aggression in exchange for Ukraine’s new president investigating Trump political rival Joe Biden and his son. Trump has argued that he was within his rights to ask Ukraine to look into corruption and that impeachment is just an attempt by Democrats to remove him from office.
Both impeachment and attempting to recall governors from office are exceedingly rare. Impeachment has only been leveled by the House against two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton 130 years later. Richard Nixon was on the brink of it in 1974 before he resigned. Walker was only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall election and the first to survive it.
The rarity of the remedy may help explain why voters are reluctant to do either one, said Charles Franklin, who has regularly surveyed voter attitudes in Wisconsin for Marquette University.
A Marquette University Law School poll conducted just as public impeachment hearings were beginning earlier this month showed 53% of voters in Wisconsin were against removing Trump for office, with just 40% in support. National polls have shown a more even divide.
Even more troubling for Wisconsin Democrats was that while 78% of Democrats supported removing Trump through impeachment, 93% of Republicans were against it. That stronger rallying behind the incumbent, with the other side not as unified, parallels what was seen during the Walker recall, Franklin said.
Walker saw his support among independent voters go from about even six months before the recall election to positive 16 points just before the election. The latest Marquette poll also shows independents currently breaking against impeachment, with 47% against and 36% in favor.
Mike Tate, who was chairman of the state Democratic Party during the recall and continues to work in the state as a consultant, cautioned against making too much of where independents are on impeachment — and where they may be next November. After the impeachment process runs its course, Democrats will move on to talk about many other issues throughout the presidential campaign, Tate said.
“Impeachment will be in the rearview mirror,” he said.
But Stephan Thompson, who led the state GOP during the recalls and went on to manage Walker’s successful 2014 reelection campaign, said impeachment is “such a monumental event in history and politics” that it will hang over Democrats the rest of the cycle and make it difficult for them to bring moderate voters back to their side.
“When the left pushes this hard and overreaches, it helps you band together with people because you’re all in the foxhole together,” Thompson said. “I think that’s something they don’t realize.”
Erpenbach, the state senator, was among those who fled to Illinois for two weeks to try to kill the anti-union bill. He argues that unlike the recall, which was motivated by a policy disagreement, Congress was forced to hold impeachment hearings because Trump is alleged to have violated the Constitution.
Democrats are taking a political chance, Erpenbach said, but they’re doing what the Constitution requires, a key distinction from the recall.
“It worries me that it could backfire,” Erpenbach said, “but that’s not the point.”