This week is being touted, in the political world, as a big week in the state of Iowa. There will be a nationally-televised Republican presidential candidate debate, and then a few days later the Ames Straw Poll will take place. The straw poll is (as always) being hyped in the media as the "first voting" in the upcoming presidential nominating contest. But the media should pay more attention to what is happening in Wisconsin this week, because rather than some "vote"-buying exercise (that always proves itself to be completely meaningless in the grand scheme of the presidential election process), Wisconsin could prove to be a much better weathervane in terms of predicting which way the political winds will be blowing, come next year.
The less said about the Iowa straw poll the better, actually. The entire thing is an obscene display of how party machinery and blatant vote-buying have absolutely nothing to do with American voters actually choosing their president. The winner of the straw poll does not have any sort of "lock" on the state of Iowa, and indeed is often not even one of the top-tier candidates in the actual election. The only thing it accurately measures is the ability of each candidate to organize and pay for the massive people-moving which is required to do well in the straw poll (those buses to get "your" supporters to the straw poll don't pay for themselves, in other words). But beyond organizational, boots-on-the-ground mechanics, the straw poll measures precisely nothing of any real-world value (or even political-world value, for that matter).
Not so what will take place in Wisconsin tomorrow. Because tomorrow's vote is going to prove to be a bellwether in terms of how strong the Tea Party Republicans truly are, and how big their influence on next year's election may be. A good showing for Republicans tomorrow in Wisconsin will energize the Tea Party faction to bend the rest of the Republicans to their wishes throughout the entire campaign. Conversely, a win for Democrats tomorrow will show Democrats that the public is souring on the Tea Party creed, and will energize the Democrats for 2012.
A quick roundup of the history of how we got here is necessary. Wisconsin, in 2010, elected Republican Scott Walker as their new governor. Walker's party was also handed control of the state legislature. He used this power to shove through some very anti-union legislation, which prompted the Democratic legislators to flee the state to use the only parliamentary maneuver they had left to prevent the bill from passing -- denying a "quorum" for the legislature to legally do business. This effort eventually failed (Republicans dusted off their own bag of legislative tricks), but not before massive people-power protest in the state capitol building. The upshot of this bitter fight was that Democrats immediately moved to recall six Republican state senators. They would have much preferred to recall the governor himself, but by state law he's got to have a full year in office before this is even possible. The Republicans countered by attempting a recall on three Democratic state senators, for "deserting their posts" (as it were).
Which brings us almost up to tomorrow. A few more salient facts first, though. One of the Democrats has already survived a recall vote, and the other two Democrats won't have their special recall elections until later in the month. Tomorrow is the day all six Republicans go before the voters. Oh, and the scorecard is important -- the state senate now stands at 19 Republicans to 14 Democrats. This means Democrats need to pick up a net of three seats in all the recall elections. The two Democrats up for recall later in the month are most likely safe. One last thing, the races have received national attention and national money (in the tens of millions of dollars), because they are seen as so important, as a test case for next year's election.
Salon has a quick rundown on the state of the six races which will be decided tomorrow (although there is a factual error in the article's lead paragraphs: "If the Democrats can defeat more than five of the incumbents" should read: "If the Democrats can defeat five of the incumbents"). Their rundown is: two probable wins for Republicans, two probable pickups for Democrats, and two races too close to call. That's pretty close. If the Democrats do pick up their expected two seats, then they'd just need to win one of the two tossups in order to take the state senate back (assuming the two Democrats beat their recall election later on).
Whether it is entirely accurate or not, this election is seen as the first real test with voters of the Tea Party ideology since the 2010 election. Which is why what happens tomorrow is going to be instantly subjected to some hard spin from both sides, no matter what the outcome.
If Republicans hang on to four state senate seats, they'll portray it on the state level as a vindication of their union-busting legislation, and on the national level as proof of voter support for Tea Party intransigence. The entire Republican Party will become even more in thrall to the Tea Partiers, for the entire election cycle. "The voters of Wisconsin showed that they support our tactics," will be the new slogan for the Tea Party contingent in national Republican politics.
If Democrats do pick up three (or even four) seats, however, it will re-energize Democrats both on the state and national level. The Democratic spin will be some version of: "The voters of Wisconsin showed that they do not buy in to how the Tea Party is trying to run things, and Republican candidates for office should take note -- blindly following the Tea Party is going to lead you right out of office."
Special elections are not always the bellwethers they are made out to be. Democrats, for instance, won quite a few tough House special elections leading up to their rout in 2010. But whether accurate or not, whatever happens tomorrow in Wisconsin could go a long way towards setting the tone for the entire 2012 election season (as opposed to whatever happens in Ames, Iowa this weekend, which will be quickly forgotten when the real voting begins). Either the Democrats or the Tea Partiers are going to claim a big victory (and, inevitably, a "mandate") for their positions tomorrow evening. One side or another will have some serious wind in its sails.
In normal times, recall elections are very tough to win. The voting public is resistant to the idea of recalling an elected official, for many reasons. There is the feeling that they should have their term in office before they have to face the voters again. There is the sentiment that special elections (especially recall elections) are a waste of the state's time -- and, more importantly, of taxpayer money. There is often resentment towards the party which effected the recall.
But these are far from normal times. So feel free to enjoy the sideshows happening in Iowa later in the week, but pay much closer attention to what's about to happen in Wisconsin. Of the two, Wisconsin's vote is going to -- by far -- be more important to the course of the 2012 election.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant