What Comes Next for Wisconsin’s Fledgling Uprising?

What Comes Next for Wisconsin’s Fledgling Uprising?

What Comes Next for Wisconsin’s Fledgling Uprising?

The unions and Democrats came up just one seat short in a tumultuous uphill battle to take control of the state Senate, but was what happened a victory or a defeat?


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Stephanie Haw needed a good cry.

On the night of August 9, the rowdy crowd inside Hawk’s bar in downtown Madison grew ever quieter as the election results trickled in. Earlier that day, with the nation watching, voters statewide cast their ballots in Wisconsin’s eagerly awaited recall elections that threatened the seats of six Republican state senators. Democrats needed to win three of them to regain control of the state senate and block Republican Governor Scott Walker’s hard-line agenda. But it wasn’t to be.  Deep into the night, an MSNBC anchor announced that a fourth GOP senator, Alberta Darling of north Milwaukee and the nearby suburbs, had clinched a narrow victory.

Haw slipped outside. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, she thought. Progressives had mobilized damn near every possible supporter they could, phone banking and door knocking and Facebooking and Tweeting, and in the end, it still wasn’t enough. She thought of all the energy poured into the recall effort, and of her 2-year-old daughter running around the house shouting “Recall Walker! Recall Walker!” Standing on the sidewalk, she burst into tears.

I met Haw and her mother later that night at Hawk’s. We sat around chewing over the election results till the bar emptied. Haw, who was wearing a red T-shirt with solidarity emblazoned on the front, said simply, “I feel terrible that we lost.” I reminded her what the Democrats had been up against: with one exception, the six districts in play leaned to the right, and all six of those Republicans had won in 2008 despite the Obama frenzy that gripped the state. (He won it by nearly 14 percentage points.) She nodded along with me and then summed her feelings up this way: “I guess it’s the best of times and the worst of times.”

That ambivalence seemed to carry through Wisconsin’s historic summer of recalls, which ended on August 16 when a pair of Democratic state senators easily defended their seats from a Republican recall effort. Which is to say, when the dust settled in the Badger State, there was no clear winner.

Wisconsin Democrats took five out of the summer’s nine recalls, and also won the overall vote count by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. They failed, however, in their chief goal: winning enough seats to wrest control of the state Senate majority and so shift the balance of power away from Governor Walker and his allies in the legislature.

That didn’t stop Mike Tate, chair of the state Democratic Party, from crowing that Democrats had clinched the “overall victory.” Republicans, meanwhile, cast the results as a vindication of Walker and his Republican game plan. “Wisconsin now emerges from this recall election season with a united Republican majority,” Wisconsin GOP chairman Brad Courtney bragged. “[We’ve] beaten off an attack from national unions and special interests and emerged steadfastly committed to carrying forward a bold job creation agenda.”

Liberal and conservative media similarly claimed victory. The Nation’s John Nichols, the most vocal cheerleader for the Democrats, wrote that their recall wins dealt “a serious blow to [Republican] authority inside the state Capitol.” Conservative blogger Owen Robinson was typical when he opined in the West Bend Daily News, “The people decided that they were pretty happy with the direction the Republicans are moving the state and let them retain power in Madison.”

Can it be both? If not, then who really won in Wisconsin? And what does that portend for the fledgling movement sparked by the labor uprising in February and March?

The Union Manpower Machine

The night before the August 9 recalls, people clutching stacks of paper and cradling cell phones to their ears spilled out of the Laborers’ Local 464 union hall on the north side of Madison. The Democratic Party had moved its phone-banking operation to the union hall to accommodate the waves of volunteers who had turned out to help the six Democrats in the next day’s election. The hall itself buzzed with the din of a few dozen conversations, and with volunteer trainers getting the next crop of callers ready for their upcoming three-hour shift.

I logged 1,200 miles driving around Wisconsin before the GOP recall elections, and saw the same enthusiasm nearly everywhere I went. It was something to behold, the staggering get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort mounted by the labor unions and the Democratic Party—at a time of year when many Wisconsinites are normally more preoccupied with last night’s Brewers game and heading out to the lake for the weekend.

One Sunday afternoon, I tagged along with a savvy, relentless community organizer named Austin Thompson in a mostly black, low- and middle-income neighborhood that locals call “Far North” Milwaukee. At door after door, Thompson stressed the importance of voting in the recalls; by the time I met him, he’d visited some houses five or six times, determined to mobilize a pocket of the city that, he reminded me, barely turned out the vote in the 2010 election.

That energy carried right up until the polls closed. Tom Bird, a whip-smart grad student I’d befriended during Madison’s labor protests back in February, texted me at 6 pm on Election Day from a local union meeting place, “I can’t even phone bank because the labor temple is full.” Democrats and the unions had thrown everything in the ring.

All that GOTV effort paid off—but for both parties. Forty-four percent of eligible voters in the six state Senate districts cast a ballot on August 9, just shy of the combined turnout for the 2010 governor’s race. The GOP’s biggest fear—that a small but motivated base of opponents would come out while their supporters stayed home—did not happen. “Everybody voted. Ultimately, that probably hurt,” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We didn’t have that kind of aggrieved-party advantage [we needed].”

Nor did Democrats have a big money advantage. Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan outfit that tracks money in Badger State politics, said upward of $40 million was spent on the nine recall races, with both left- and right-leaning groups spending roughly the same amount. By contrast, $3.75 million went into the entire slate of legislative races in 2010. The key difference, McCabe explained, was the wave of “dark money” spent by right-leaning groups, who, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, didn’t have to disclose their donors. (Left-leaning groups almost entirely disclosed their funders.) Such staggering recall spending, he said, “is so out of whack from everything we’ve ever seen.”

Make no mistake: the Democrats and labor unions won the overall GOTV fight. In the nine Senate districts in play this summer, more ballots were cast for Democrats than for Tom Barrett, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, in last November’s general election. Sure, Republican turnout was higher than expected, but a majority of the districts at stake were colored red on the political map anyway. “Union money is being matched or outmatched by money from conservative organizations,” wrote Slate’s Dave Weigel, “but union turnout operations are outmuscling conservatives and the Tea Party.”

Putting the Cart Before the Donkey

A week before the August 9 recalls, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate held a national conference call with reporters to deliver some rosy news. Internal polling (always to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt) showed Democrats leading in three races and tied in the remaining three. Tate didn’t say so outright, but the swagger in his voice sent a message: We’re gonna win this thing. Next stop, senate majority.

When I arrived in Wisconsin four days before the vote, many of the activists, operatives, and candidates with whom I talked brimmed with confidence. Polling data from the liberal Daily Kos website showed Democrats ahead in three races, albeit by the narrowest of margins in two of them. “In my mind we get all six,” Jessica King, one of the six Democratic challengers, told me on the steps of the Waupun City Hall. (And she would, in fact, unseat the Republican she was facing.)

Then, on the eve of the elections, I sensed a subtle shift. A succession of union and Democratic staffers pulled me aside to remind me about what an uphill fight their candidates faced, and how difficult it was going to be to win on GOP turf in the dead of summer. You could feel then that, by trumpeting their chances of ousting three or more senators, left-leaning groups feared that they had put the cart before the donkey (if you will). Suddenly, the bluster was gone, and they were racing to manage expectations.

It was too late. When Democrats fell one seat short of winning back the senate majority, their opponents promptly portrayed what was certainly a victory as an embarrassing loss, a waste of money and manpower, a sign of the left’s waning clout. “They came, they spent, they lost,” was how one conservative blogger put it. “Unions made Wisconsin a great battleground to send a message to other states that politicians who challenge union power will pay a price,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board opined. “The real price was paid by the unions themselves, in the national demonstration of their diminishing power.” Never mind that the Republicans had fired the first shot in the summer’s recall battle, and that the Democrats had launched their own recall efforts only in response to Republican threats—a point, it should be added, that Democrats failed to hammer home.

And so even though left-leaning groups turned out more voters, won more races, and left Governor Walker with a razor-thin majority—and one Republican senator who who voted against Walker’s anti-union bill and might be willing to work with the Democrats on key issues—they found themselves losing the messaging war. They had pinned their hopes on instant and total victory, on flipping the Senate, when they just as easily could have kept expectations in check. Such lofty ambitions in the face of very long odds and unfriendly demographics gave Republicans an opening to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Further to the Left—and Right

Matt Thompson leaned back in his chair at the Argus pub just off Capitol Square in Madison, and thought about what came next. (Heavy political discussion in Wisconsin, you might have noticed, is often accompanied by even heavier ales.) Thompson had taken to the streets during the winter labor uprising to protest Walker’s anti-union actions, and since then has been a voice in the debate over the future of Wisconsin’s re-energized progressive movement, a discussion cultivated on the Twitter hashtag #wiunion. “I just don’t want this movement, whatever you want to call it, to fade,” he told me. “But if we don’t get three seats, I feel like that’s gonna hurt our momentum.”

Thompson was right to worry. With no obvious winner in Wisconsin’s summer recalls, it’s unclear what comes next for progressives. Many of the Wisconsinites I met told me that they were tired of the attack ads and political fisticuffs; they couldn’t wait for the senate recalls to end so they could get on with their lives. Yet left-leaning groups insist that the nine races were mere previews for the biggest recall of all: Governor Walker’s.

There are plenty of reasons a Walker recall would be a long shot. For starters, only two governors have been recalled in this country’s history: North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003. Walker’s opponents will need to collect upwards of 600,000 signatures in sixty days to trigger a recall. And they will have to decide whether to begin collecting signatures in January, the moment Walker is eligible for recall—he has to have been in office for a full year—or plan their effort to coincide with the November presidential election.

Collecting 600,000 signatures, activists told me, isn’t that daunting; one million Wisconsinites voted for Walker’s opponent in 2010 in an election featuring a mediocre turnout and before anyone knew that Walker wanted to kneecap public-sector unions. But winning a recall election remains a very tall order.

If the Senate recalls succeeded at anything, experts say, it was in further polarizing the voters of Wisconsin, widening the chasm between left and right in a state previously known for compromise. (Remember, it was Republican Governor Tommy Thompson who ushered in BadgerCare, the state’s renowned health insurance program for low-income parents and children.)

Then there’s the recall fatigue felt by many. After weeks of nasty attack ads blanketing the airwaves, some of them peddling outright lies, there was a general feeling that people wanted to get on with their lives. A recent survey by left-leaning Public Policy Polling captured that wariness, with 50 percent of respondents opposing a Walker recall while 47 percent supported it. Any such recall effort would also fall within the shadow of the 2012 presidential race, if not on election day itself, raising an important question: Would the Democratic Party and liberal outside groups that spent tens of millions of dollars in Wisconsin this summer siphon money away from defending President Obama or preserving their US Senate majority in a difficult effort to defeat Walker?

When you play the angles, a Walker recall looks increasingly unlikely, says Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin–Madison political scientist. “I think it could happen,” he told me, “but between the letdown of not having succeeded fully this time and the competition in 2012, I think it’s going to wither away.”

Progressives at the Crossroads

Not if the unions can help it. After returning from Wisconsin, I interviewed Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), at her organization’s headquarters just off Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, Henry’s spacious office was splashed with colorful maps depicting SEIU membership around the country or various states’ positions on issues like antigay and right-to-work legislation.

She was, Henry said, “incredibly proud of the heroic efforts” of the unions in pushing back against Walker and Wisconsin Republicans, but also “disappointed with the outcome.” Most of all, she went on, the big challenge for SEIU and other unions was transforming the Wisconsin uprising into something larger. “I have waited all my life to see what I saw in February,” she told me. “And I think the question for us is how do we add oxygen to that?”

Henry acknowledged the possibility that a Walker recall election might go forward, but insisted that the key for Wisconsin’s progressives was “not to limit [the movement] or narrow it into electoral politics.” Instead, she considered it crucial to make sure “it’s expanded into a demand for jobs from the private sector in the state, and getting people back to work.” She summed things up this way: “I just think we need to expand the fight.”

Even activists on the ground in Wisconsin don’t yet know if that will happen. For the rest of us, their decision either to press on or pack it in will speak volumes about where progressive organizing stands in America, a nation where too many protesters believe it’s enough to turn up for a few rallies and then go home, even though the foundations for real mass movements (like Egypt’s democracy uprising) are laid years before lasting change occurs.

Americans need such a movement, built on economic populism and the dream of shared prosperity. The question is: Are Wisconsin’s progressives the first spark in that movement? Or is theirs a flare that is already flickering out?

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