Although Wisconsin easily returned Gov. Scott Walker to office, voters across the state voted in favor of two ideas Walker has been dead set against -- expanding BadgerCare and raising the minimum wage.
Voters in 19 counties and the city of Kenosha voted in favor of using federal funds to expand BadgerCare -- funds that were made available with the passage of Obamacare in 2010, but that Walker has rejected. Combining all 20 referendums, Citizen Action of Wisconsin found voters approved this idea by 73% of the vote. Not a single county voted against it.
Even in counties where Walker easily beat his opponent, Mary Burke, this referendum passed by a significant margin. It passed with 58% of the vote in Clark County, where Walker won with 64% of the vote. In Outagamie County, where Walker won 59% of the vote, the referendum passed with 61%. In St. Croix County, where Walker also won 59% of the vote, the referendum passed with 70%.
Nine counties and four cities also held referendums on whether to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. In every place where the question was posed, voters approved it. In a tally of the combined votes, Citizen Action of Wisconsin found that 67% of voters supported raising the minimum wage. Walker opposes that move. "I don't think it serves a purpose," he said in October.
The referendums -- none of which were binding -- show many Walker supporters are clearly in favor of ideas that are the antithesis of the governor's agenda.
"This is going to sound a little radical, but people don't really vote based on the issues," says Katherine Cramer, a political science professor and interim director of UW's Morgridge Center for Public Service.
Instead, Cramer says that people vote for candidates they identify with, by asking the question: “Is this somebody like me or somebody who gets me?”
Cramer credits Walker for being able to connect with voters who support positions contrary to his. And she says that people who voted in favor of the referendums and Walker, probably are "not as well informed" on the issues.
Nevertheless, Cramer says she was surprised at how easily the referendums passed.
Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, wasn't surprised. He says all too often people take the election of a politician as a point-by-point endorsement of his or her agenda. But voters cast their votes based on a whole range of issues and feelings.
Says Kraig: "We conflate those things far too often and quite frankly we should not take the election of any politician as a ratification of their entire agenda."
But since none of the referendums were binding, the state is under no obligation to pay attention to them. Wisconsin Public Radio reported after the election that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) had no intention of acting on either.
"I would imagine it has a lot to do with how safe that person is," Cramer says. "If they've been elected by a safe margin, they have some leeway to ignore [referendums]."
But Kraig argues that they do give activists ammunition when lobbying legislators. "These referendums really show that they're a good way to get issues out there and keep them viable," he says. "[Republicans are] going to fluff off these referendums, but they provide more leverage."
In fact, Kraig thinks it's possible that the Walker administration might follow Iowa's lead on Obamacare. Iowa had initially resisted expanding Medicaid, but reached a compromise with the federal government to use the funds to subsidize coverage of poorer residents in the private insurance exchanges. This is similar to what Wisconsin has done, keeping the extremely poor on Medicaid, but moving the marginally poor into private insurance exchanges.
"Walker's plan exists in Iowa with full federal funding and much greater affordability," Kraig says. "Walker can say 'the federal government has come around to my way of thinking'" and accept the money now.
On the other hand, Kraig says, Walker might also try to position himself as the most conservative candidate for president, and continue rejecting federal aid.
"Does he think he has to be in a position to say 'I'm to the right of Attila the Hun on health care'?" Kraig wonders. "That might be his strategy. I hope it's not."