Democrats looking to Washington during the long, hot summer for signs of their party’s renewal got little in the way of relief. President Obama’s approval ratings tanked after he compromised away historic Democratic positions in the debt-ceiling fight. The party’s Congressional leaders, who in the spring had seemed prepared to fight off Republican attempts to erode Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, sent so many mixed signals that it was difficult to tell whether the party wanted to fight austerity or embrace it.
Yet beyond the Beltway, a different story has been unfolding. And it holds out promise for a party that needs not just hope but a coherent strategy for the 2012 election season. Dramatic overreach by newly elected Republican governors, who sought to curtail labor rights, undermine local democracy and slash spending for education and local services, has provoked a backlash that draws stark ideological and political lines on fundamental economic questions. And that is winning substantial Democratic victories in unexpected territory, including rural areas where the party suffered its greatest setbacks in 2010.
In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker and his allies stripped most collective bargaining rights from public employees and teachers in an attempt to render public unions toothless, unions and their allies bit back. The same Wisconsinites who protested in the streets in February and March forged a grassroots recall campaign against the politicians who had denied the will of the people. The initiative so rattled Walker’s Republicans that they spent millions organizing recall campaigns against three Democratic senators from Republican-trending districts. That set up a summer of nine recall elections—all of them in districts that had voted for Walker in 2010.
Against an onslaught of outside spending by billionaire conservative donors and their front groups, Democrats defeated two Republican senators and retained all three of their incumbents. This gave the Democrats a 5–4 winning record and a majority of the votes cast in districts that had favored Walker by higher margins than the rest of the state had just nine months earlier. The results collapsed the GOP advantage from 19–14 in the Senate to 17–16, meaning that Democrats and a moderate Republican who broke with Walker on the collective bargaining issue can form a majority to block the governor’s most extreme initiatives. That’s not the clear control Democrats had wanted, of course, but even the Senate’s Republican leader says the emphasis now will have to be on cooperation. And Walker—whose approval ratings are lower than Obama’s—is talking up bipartisanship as he scrambles to avert a recall threat to his tumultuous tenure.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, an ideological soulmate of Walker’s, got the message. After the Wisconsin results were announced, Kasich began pleading with opponents to help him rework legislation he had signed to undermine collective bargaining rights in Ohio. His hope was to thwart a November referendum that seeks to overturn the law using an old reform tool that allows voters to veto offensive legislation. Taking a signal from Wisconsin, and from Ohio’s own remarkable effort to collect 1.3 million signatures (four times the necessary total) to qualify the statewide vote, the We Are Ohio coalition’s Melissa Fazekas declared, “We’re glad that Governor Kasich and the other politicians who passed SB 5 are finally admitting this is a flawed bill. Just like the bill was flawed, this approach to a compromise is flawed as well. Our message is clear. These same politicians who passed this law could repeal it and not thwart the will of the people.”