Josh Kurtz: Say Cheese

By Josh Kurtz

Political Armageddon is upon us.

It has major consequences for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), with potential lessons in store for an array of Maryland political interests.

We’re not talking about the special session now under way in Annapolis – though we could be. No, we’re talking about the election in Wisconsin to recall Gov. Scott Walker (R).

If the White House campaign is this year’s heavyweight championship bout, then the Wisconsin recall is surely the No. 1 undercard. By the time it’s all over three weeks from now, special interests will have spent about $80 million on the slugfest — $60 million to help Walker save his job.

All this when only a very thin slice of the electorate remains undecided and persuadable. In the two most recent public polls on the recall – one of which showed Walker slightly ahead, the other of which showed him trailing but within the margin of error – the undecided voters represented just 5 percent and 7 percent of those surveyed, respectively.

Over the next three weeks, bodies will be littered across the bloody political battlefield. Reputations will be made and lost. And the recall election will very likely set the tone for the fall campaign.

As chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, O’Malley finds himself right in the middle of the fray, whether he wants to be or not. The DGA is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Wisconsin to oust Walker, and so are other major donors like labor unions and progressive groups.

In Walker’s camp are the Republican Governors Association, business organizations and conservative super PACs funded by industry titans and masterminded by the GOP’s top – and most cutthroat – political strategists.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Walker prevails it will be cataclysmically demoralizing for labor and progressive forces and will call into question their ability to re-elect President Obama, retain Democratic control of the U.S. Senate, and trim the Republican majority in the House of Representatives this fall. And who knows what conservative reign of terror a Walker victory will unleash? If you’re going to try to kill the king, you’d better succeed. If not, be prepared for the consequences.

The DGA alone isn’t going to make or break Scott Walker. And whatever national political future O’Malley is contemplating for himself probably isn’t going to rise or fall solely on his stewardship of the campaign committee.

But the fact is, in a year in which Democrats are in grave danger of losing some key governorships – North Carolina, New Hampshire, Montana and Washington could all flip to the Republican column, and West Virginia and Missouri could too if the bottom really falls out – Wisconsin represents the DGA’s only viable pick-up opportunity at the moment. There will be plenty of internal recriminations if the party doesn’t seize the opportunity. Any post-mortem finger pointing will inevitably ensnare O’Malley in unforeseen ways.

Yet the stakes are probably even higher for organized labor. Unions have waged war on Walker – and he on them – since he took office 17 months ago. But for all the unions’ perceived muscle, they couldn’t get their preferred candidate, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, through the pre-recall Democratic primary (Falk was also the favorite of environmentalists, another key Maryland constituency). Now they’ve transferred their political operation to the service of Walker’s Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to the Republican by almost 6 points in November 2010.

At a time when Maryland unions suddenly seem much less monolithic than they once did – they rode the wrong horse in last month’s 6th congressional district Democratic primary, and state AFL-CIO President Fred Mason’s threats against U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D) for supporting John Delaney over Rob Garagiola in that primary seemed particularly empty – you can be sure they’ll be watching the performance of their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin very, very closely.

Obama has been a big disappointment to labor, but of course the alternative, from the unions’ perspective, is much worse. But the real labor battles in the last year or so have been in statehouses, against Walker and his ilk.

If Walker survives the recall he’ll seem invincible, and he and other conservative governors will be emboldened as they try to dismantle collective bargaining rights. A Walker victory next month will cast a pall over the entire labor movement. Which could hurt Obama and Democrats up and down the ballot in November.

And get ready for this, Maryland: Super PACs will be coming to the state. With such controversial measures as gay marriage and the DREAM Act headed for the statewide ballot in November, it’s inevitable and only a matter of time.

With these shadowy organizations, it’s hard to track who’s funding them, and also hard to regulate – and limit – their contributions and expenditures. Our state Board of Elections seems particularly ill equipped to provide any kind of oversight. Talk about Armageddon!

So by all means pay close attention to – and fret about – this week’s developments in Annapolis. But keep an eye on Wisconsin. The recall is the most significant political development between now and November, and though it’s 850 miles away, the reverberations will be felt very strongly here in Maryland – maybe for a long time to come.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Taxman

Generally Speaking (Part 2)

Generally Speaking (Part 1)

Charm Offensive

Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

Heather Mizeur, Superstar

Striking Back at the Empire

Bad Karma in Annapolis

More Than a Protest Vote

Doug Duncan’s Next Act