The most important election of 2012 -- certainly the most interesting one -- is Tuesday's gubernatorial recall vote in Wisconsin. The eyes of the nation should be riveted. There, in the Badger State, the armies of the left and the right will face off, with Republican Gov. Scott Walker serving as the flash point in a larger war that has been brewing in America for years.
The fight is between public employee unions, whose influence has grown to monstrous proportions in statehouses across America, and fiscal conservatives who, I think rightly, see the public employee unions as enemy No. 1 in the effort to scale back the size and scope of state and local governments. Unfunded pension costs alone, estimated at $3 trillion nationally, are sinking municipalities and threatening to bankrupt states like Illinois and California. New York City now pays more for garbage collected years ago than trash collected today because of pension costs.
For the nation's largest public employee unions -- the American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, Civil Service Employees Association, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- everything is at stake. They are "all in" in Wisconsin, having spent tens of millions of dollars and enormous political capital on the recall effort. The union boots on the ground came off buses from states across the nation, a demonstration of just how organized organized labor is today. And plenty of outside help has been quietly provided to Walker.
Public employee unions have grown powerful because they've been able to make or break candidacies. Cross them and you are politically neutered -- or worse. Support them and endorsements, money and advocacy phone calls rain down at election time like manna from Valhalla. The Walker recall conspicuously puts that union juice to the test -- in a state famous for its powerful unions.
Wisconsin voters on both sides of this issue get Tuesday's importance. Upward of 65 percent of voters are expected to turn out. If those estimates hold, nearly as many Badger State residents will vote in the recall as voted in the 2008 presidential election, when 69 percent of voters cast ballots. As of now, polls show an effective dead heat in Wisconsin, with Walker a few points ahead in some polls, but largely within the margin of error.
The recall campaign began a year ago when Walker fulfilled his campaign pledge to limit the collective bargaining powers of Wisconsin public employee unions. That is, he took away their ability to negotiate certain benefits from politicians reaching back to them with outstretched hands -- a power expressly denied federal employees. The unions went crazy and Senate Democrats in Madison fled to Michigan for more than a month to deny Republicans the quorum required to pass the law. The statehouse was famously taken over by union demonstrators, Senate Democrats eventually returned, the bill passed and various recall efforts ensued -- culminating in the one on Tuesday.
Governors across the nation are watching closely, including Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo and Chris Christie, each of whom has challenged the unions, albeit at different levels and with sharply different styles. Tuesday will tell them what they need to know.
America's public employee unions will either be broken. Or they will be more powerful than ever.
Don't miss it: Tuesday, June 5, 8 p.m. Central Time.