Tuesday night was not an easy one for just about anyone in Wisconsin who was paying attention. I sat with a group of pro-labor activists at Hawk's downtown, watching the returns from the six recall elections roll in on a big screen. We talked excitedly about the possibilities if three of the seats were to flip and control of the Senate changed hands. We checked our phones obsessively. We drank a lot of beer.
By the end of the evening the mood had gone from nervous to boisterous (at one point "Solidarity Forever" was being sung lustily by a group at the bar which included one very big badger) to a bit surly and resigned.
Out on the square the crowd that had gathered to watch the live taping of the Ed Shultz show was slowly dispersing as news of Sen. Alberta Darling's victory over Democratic challenger Sandy Pasch finally came down near midnight. Pasch had been the final hope of gaining those three seats.
The mood was definitely subdued -- but one thing it was not was defeated.
News organizations and commentators of all political leanings have been talking about what a crushing blow this was for the anti-Walker activists. The Senate was not flipped. The Republicans still control every branch of state government. Indeed, it's no stretch to say that we're still facing a long period of ever increasing political acrimony in Wisconsin.
What is not being said nearly enough, however, is how remarkable even just the two Democratic wins were -- how crucial a shift in the electorate has occurred since Walker was voted into office last November, and the nature of the sea change happening state- and nationwide.
An editorial from the New York Times gets it, though:
Republicans will not admit this, but the numbers showed significant strength for Democrats even in the districts they lost - strength that could grow if lawmakers continue cutting spending and taxes while reducing the negotiating rights of working families. In one rural senatorial district that had not elected a Democrat in a century, the Democratic candidate reached 48 percent of the vote.
The piece also points out that only two recall elections had succeeded in the past 80 years in Wisconsin -- we just doubled that number in a single night. And by replacing Sens. Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke with Sens.-Elect Jennifer Shilling and Jessica King we've added two pro-choice female voices to our representation at the Capitol.
The recall results are nothing to sneeze at -- it wasn't all we'd hoped for, certainly, and there are a lot of important lessons to be learned by mistakes made and paths not taken (why, for instance, did the Democrat's campaign back away from the very issue that sparked so much outrage earlier this year: collective bargaining?), but we saw Republican support erode in some traditionally right-leaning districts and two seats taken from the GOP in the Senate. We saw massive GOTV efforts and organization, much by people who'd never been particularly politically active ever before.
Nate Silver, the stats-nerd-genius behind Five Thirty Eight, looked at the numbers from this election and comes to the conclusion that a recall vote against Walker would likely be a toss-up; too close to call. However, he's right to note that while Tuesday's election results "won't affect the math much," they could negatively affect the morale of Democrats and their supporters.
Whether or not the left in this state can keep up their momentum without losing people to voter fatigue will play a major role in the success or failure of a gubernatorial recall challenge. The other big factor, based on some polling and common sense, is just who exactly ends up running against Walker. Just enough people (thankfully) still care about the individual candidates a little more than what party they're from. The Democrats would need to run an incredibly strong candidate (Russ Feingold, Mahlon Mitchell, etc.) to have a real shot of unseating Walker, even with his approval ratings so low.
All of that is important to think about and remember for the sake of maintaining forward momentum -- but it's equally crucial (maybe a little more so) to focus on the substance of what's at issue here: People want jobs where they're treated with respect and have a say in how things work, reasonably safe communities, the promise of an actual retirement before they're too old to enjoy it, and opportunities for their children. It's safe to say, I think, that that's true of Republicans and Democrats alike.
It would be good, then, to see members of both parties (and those, like myself, who are unaffiliated) more willing to take the leaders to task -- give some constructive criticism -- in order to see that parties actually strive to represent the people, and not just their internal interests. This eternal back-and-forth bickering and refusal to look for any common ground is strangling our country right now.
For instance, at the federal level you have the debt ceiling debacle and just about everything else that goes through Congress these days. Here in Wisconsin, heat-of-the-moment statements from Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate and spokesman Graeme Zielinski accusing Republicans -- incompetent Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus specifically -- of vote tampering were embarrassing. That they then had to walk them back was, too. I understand the instinct to mistrust anything that comes from Nickolaus after the Supreme Court election debacle, and I also understand that rushing to major accusations like that does no one any good. Call it the Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome.
On the other hand, Walker thinks Tuesday's election results show that Wisconsinites "want more bipartisanship from their leaders." They do, but that's not what a Republican lock on all branches of government gives them. What Walker really means is that he wants Democrats to jump ship and vote for exactly what Republicans want, without compromise. If real bipartisanship was what Walker and his GOP truly wanted then we wouldn't have seen the non-stop 19-14 votes in the Senate, and we wouldn't have passed every last piece of legislation the GOP wanted without any amendments from Democrats.
That's not how bipartisanship and compromise actually work and it's willfully ignorant of Walker to pretend otherwise. In the future, too, simply leaving the state when things get rough is probably not the best solution. It makes for great theater and certainly I cheered on the Fab 14 when they went, yet even I will admit that there are better ways for our representatives to do their jobs (and that saying so won't exactly win me friends on the left).
It will take the Republican and Democratic bases speaking up loud and clear to get the politicians to see that, though -- and it's in everyone's best interests that this be the case, regardless of ideology. We have to get the methods fixed before there's any hope of reaching decent solutions (no, Rep. Robin Vos, amending the state constitution to make recalls even harder to trigger is not one of those things that needs mending).
We should be holding party officials and politicians alike to higher standards of thoughtfulness and statesmanship. We should be demanding that regular citizens have far more sway over elections and governance than any corporation, PAC, think tank or Koch brother-style web of influence. That, indeed, may be the most important fight.
The results of the recalls were an astonishing accomplishment by those who pushed for them -- and, perhaps paradoxically, also illustrated how diverse the opinions of the people of Wisconsin are after all. I'm happy not to live in a one-size-fits-all state. I'd be a lot happier if more of the folks we elect to go to the Capitol and ostensibly work on our behalf would recognize that, too.