What We Won In Wisconsin

Isaiah J. Poole

Ignore the chest-thumping from the right following the Wisconsin recall elections Tuesday night. The fact that Democratic challengers prevailed in two of the six races, and came within less than 1,100 votes of unseating a third in a race where almost 51,000 votes were cast, is, to paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, a big effing deal.

One of the two Democrats who won, Jessica King, won in an area that has a longtime Republican congressman, Tom Petri, and which voted for George W. Bush handily in both 2000 and 2004, and which President Obama barely won in 2008. The other victor, Jennifer Shilling, was in somewhat friendlier territory but she defeated a two-term state senator. Nonetheless, as John Nichols points out at The Nation, all of the Democratic challengers were "running in districts that were drawn to elect Republicans, that have consistently elected Republicans for generations, and that all backed Walker last November."

Both King and Shilling overcame a tsunami of money from conservative groups and corporate interests that made these recall efforts, already historic in that it was the first time ever that six state legislators had to face recalls simultaneously, the most expensive legislative elections in the state’s history (as much as $40 million, according to some estimates).

Markos Moulitsas captured the significance of the election for progressives as well as anyone:

We took the fight into red territory, and took two seats. What was a safe 19-14 GOP advantage is now a narrow 17-16. If we had those numbers going into 2011, the anti-labor bill would never have passed—one GOPer voted with the Democrats (and hey, Sen. Dale Schultz, the water is mighty fine on our side of the aisle!).

… Beyond Wisconsin, if we can enjoy a similar "loss rate" in Republican-held districts (picking up 33 percent of them), Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have a huge majority in 2013. We had a message that resonated with large numbers of working people in overwhelmingly white working-class districts that shifted hard against Democrats in 2010. GOP overreach is winning them back for us. Just think, before today, only 13 state legislators had been recalled in the entire history of this nation.

So yeah, I feel strangely energized and elated.

There is good reason to be. There was broad revulsion against the extremist conservative agenda of Gov. Scott Walker, who led an attack on worker bargaining rights under the guise of closing the state’s budget deficit while muscling through tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy that worsened the deficit and set the pretext for cuts in vital state services to low- and middle-income state residents. Now we know that revulsion can be channeled into a viable political movement that can sometimes propel progressive candidates into office and at other times at least force conservative candidates to keep watching their back.

This results of this movement take away any doubt about the proposition that Walker had no mandate for his extreme attack on public workers and on struggling families. The effort that is currently underway to recall Walker himself next year can take comfort in Tuesday’s victories. So can activists who are pursuing a referendum in Ohio to overturn an anti-worker law pushed through the legislature by conservative Gov. John Kasich.

Josh Marshall makes a compelling analogy to rebut arguments that the Wisconsin effort, by failing to place the Senate in Democratic hands, was a wasted effort.

"But it’s wrong to see political energy and resources as finite and something to be marshaled. It’s not a zero sum game. This kind of effort doesn’t take away from something else. It adds to it. It builds organizational muscle. In fact, it’s like muscle. You build it by exercising it. I don’t lose part of my allotment of muscle by doing some bench presses. I build it up. And the exercise itself demonstrates that a political movement can bite back."

To be sure, the results also make clear the scope of how uphill the fight is and will continue to be in a political landscape where corporations, and the millionaires and billionaires who run them or profit from them, are prepared to throw unlimited cash into these elections on behalf of politicians who will insulate them from paying their fair share or bearing their share of accountability for the country from which they profit. And it is not just the flood of money. When Walker on Tuesday, as voters were standing in line at the polls, signed into law a redistricting plan designed to disempower citizens who disagreed with the right-wing agenda, that was just a taste of what the conservative establishment was prepared to do to stay in power—in some cases, even if it meant making it harder for people to vote, or using lies, deceit or law-breaking.

The right response to all of this is not to be discouraged; that would guarantee that the political forces that are seeking to dismantle the work of the New Deal, the Great Society, the union movement and the equality fights of the past eight decades will succeed. Instead, we regroup. We assess our strengths and learn from our mistakes. We fine-tune our message. We get back up again, confident that as Dr, Martin Luther King said, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice—all the more when people pursuing justice stand up to the forces of economic injustice.


The “Take Back the American Dream” conference in October will feature leaders of the Wisconsin protest movement against the conservative agenda of Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators. To join them in planning the next steps in “rebuilding the dream” of good jobs, workers’ rights and economic security, register here.

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