Editor's note: Ilyse Hogue is the former director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org. She has been a senior strategist to a number of Democratic and progressive groups, including Media Matters for America, Public Campaign and Rebuild the Dream. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.
(CNN) -- In 2004, when President George W. Bush was re-elected by 3.5 million votes, he had a message to deliver about the mandate he had won. "I earned capital in this campaign, political capital," he said, "and now I intend to spend it."
I suspect Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is feeling similar vindication Wednesday morning after decidedly winning his recall election. Walker -- like Bush -- uttered the requisite token sentiment about governing toward consensus and bringing people together in the wake of a fractious election, but all signs point to him pursuing his single-minded, slash-and-burn campaign against organized labor and his efforts to balance the state's budget on the backs of poor and working people.
Walker won with just over 53% of the vote in Wisconsin Tuesday. That's a definitive victory. There will be no recounts, and charges of voter suppression efforts -- which should be aggressively investigated anyway -- are not significant enough to reverse the outcome.
But the Republicans and the governor himself overinterpret the governing "mandate" at their own peril. This was not a referendum on all Democrats. In fact, exit polls showed that 18% of Walker voters favor President Barack Obama. Most see the president as the candidate to move the economy and help the middle class, and if the election were held tomorrow, by these numbers, Obama would take Wisconsin again.
More significantly, with the margin of 7%, that still leaves an obvious 46% of Wisconsin voters at odds with the governor's agenda, many with an extreme intensity that fueled an unprecedented ground game on behalf of challenger Tom Barrett.
But what if the numbers are actually higher than they appear at first glance? Despite a campaign filled with union bashing and gleeful Mitt Romney staffers Tuesday night unbecomingly tweeting that unions should "pack it in," exit polls show that a slim majority of voters Tuesday actually support public employee unions. In fact, the union seemed to be less on trial Tuesday than the recall itself.
A driving force among Walker voters appeared to be a feeling that the recall effort was an inappropriate and expensive tool to resolve the differences in the state that led to the historic protests last winter when Walker announced he intended to end collective bargaining for most public workers. Some voters felt that recalls should only be used in cases of "official misconduct," not disagreement on policy issues.
Misconduct is in the eyes of the beholder, as is obvious by the high intensity behind the recall campaign. Some 900,000 people in Wisconsin signed the dotted line to hold this recall election. Still, the distinction is a critical one. Unions have been the subject of incessant bashing in this election and for the last decade. It's not shocking that Republicans have zeroed in on these organizing institutions, given unions' historic financial and volunteer support for Democratic candidates, who more often share their interest in supporting the rights of working people.
The demonization effort has been astonishing given that we're talking about teachers and firefighters and bus drivers and all of the other folks that make daily life easier, more productive and safer for the rest of us Americans. And it's worked enough that all of us who want to continue to see workers compose a strong middle class need to think about how we communicate the value of organized workers to the American economy and to the American way of life.
But has it worked that well? According to the Center for Public Integrity, Walker raised and spent about 10 times as much as Barrett did on this election. Sixy-six percent of those donors came from out of state, as opposed to Barrett's 74% in state donors. That doesn't even include the outside groups spending enabled by Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling on campaign spending. Outside groups supporting Walker spent more than three times more than outside groups supporting Barrett. Even with that enormous disparity in the communications capacity of the efforts, most voters in Wisconsin do not have a problem with labor unions, the chief punching bag of the right.
But they do seem to have a problem with the out of control spending that comes along with these elections. This effort overall was 70% more expensive than the state's record-setting gubernatorial election in 2010, so it is really no wonder that voters feel disgusted to see cash going toward an election rather than solving the problems they face every day.
The recall election was not a mistake. When 65% of voters turn out in a special election, it's a much needed moment of accountability. But the cost of the election may have rankled voters who have been subjected to endless cuts in service as Walker has struggled to make good on his promise to balance the state budget. His dedication to tax cuts for the wealthy while imposing austerity measures still leaves a hole in the budget of $143 million, while job loss has been steady for six months, giving Wisconsin one of the worst records in the nation on employment.
All evidence points to the election results as far more complex than the Republicans want to admit. The Walker team will undoubtedly enjoy the afterglow of Tuesday night's victory. However, they would be foolish to move full steam ahead with their agenda to dismantle the labor infrastructure that built and maintained a robust middle class in this country.
Most Americans want that just as much as they wanted a 100-year war in Iraq that cost the country far too much in blood and treasure. If Walker has any doubts about that, he should pick up the phone and ask Bush how the next four years turned out for him and his party.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.
Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ilyse Hogue.