Tammy Baldwin's victory, and President Obama's, showed that Wisconsin is still a majority Democratic state. But after the failed recall effort, we are stuck with Gov. Scott Walker until 2014. And thanks to the egregious partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts following the Republican wave of 2010, we may be stuck with a Republican legislature until the next 10-year census rolls around.
Right now, Walker and our Republican Legislature are gearing up to push all their bad ideas from last year harder than ever. How do we get out of this mess? And who is going to challenge Walker in 2014?
So far, there is no great candidate.
All the buzz is about a little-known and undeclared prospect: Madison biotech exec Kevin Conroy. Conroy could be a kind of Democratic Ron Johnson - a successful businessman who could attack Walker's record on the economy from the point of view of a "job creator," and who could afford to self-finance.
That last point is not a small one, given the $37 million in out-of-state money that poured in on Walker's side during the recall - more than all the candidates and outside groups put together spent in the 2010 governor's race.
Walker's record so far is abysmal on his signature promise: creating jobs in Wisconsin. He's also pushed a whole raft of legislation that is out of step with the majority of Wisconsin voters, including defunding Planned Parenthood, siphoning more money from the public schools into vouchers, and attacking our state's great higher ed system. He should surely be beatable.
"The promise to create 250,000 jobs is an albatross around the governor's neck," says Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "His job-creation agency has lost track of millions of dollars it has doled out, and is failing miserably at its mission."
But even with all those points against him, Walker's money could overwhelm potential challengers.
"Scott Walker's two greatest assets heading into 2014 are out-of-state millionaires and billionaires and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin," says McCabe.
Where is the Democratic bench? Forget former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. He doesn't want to run. Where is the organization that can harness the massive popular energy of the uprising and the recall effort?
One lesson of the recall was that struggling private-sector workers don't necessarily see public employee unions or Democrats as their champions. And with union membership on the decline for decades now, McCabe points out that the Dems are turning more to business for backing. "That goes a long way toward explaining why they haven't exactly been working-class champions," he says.
Lately, campaigns seem to be more about big spending on negative ads than Wisconsinites' real concerns. But those concerns are boiling over.
Working people's worries about holding onto good jobs, health care, and their kids' access to education are reaching a crisis point, says Frank Emspak of Workers Independent News.
"What is the plan for creating jobs in the northern two-thirds of the state?" Emspak asks. "The only proposal is tax cuts."
Emspak sees huge potential for a popular uprising as parents watch their kids' prospects for a good life receding. It's happened before in state history. "Whether or not the Democrats rise to the occasion with a clear jobs program - not just tax breaks - I don't know," he says.
Meanwhile, state Dems are gearing up for the 2014 campaign, even without a candidate.
Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, points to field offices and staff left over from the Obama and Baldwin campaigns in Eau Claire, La Crosse and the Fox Valley. That infrastructure is new, he says.
And Zielinski says the Dems have a leaner but smarter state party operation, relying more heavily on the kind of good voter research that allowed both the Obama and Baldwin campaigns to win despite being outspent 2-to-1.
"There are more Democrats than Republicans in Wisconsin," Zielinski says. "The question is how do we get them to the polls and win?"
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.