As Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz repeatedly reminded the Democratic faithful Tuesday night at the Marriott-West, it was "a good night for Democrats" - on the national level as well as in Wisconsin. Democrats picked up four seats in the state Senate, giving them the majority, 18-15.
And for the first time in 16 years, Democrats gained seats in the Assembly, instead of losing them. They picked up at least seven seats, narrowing the GOP's control of that body to 53-46. And one seat, Dist. 43 in Janesville, is headed for a near-certain recount, with Republican incumbent Debi Towns "winning" by a mere six votes.
"Nobody could have imagined the Democrats making these kinds of gains in the Assembly," says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "This was a very strong wake-up call to the bosses in the Capitol." Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature since 2002.
In four Assembly races - including Democrat Meagan Yost's challenge to incumbent Eugene Hahn in DeForest - Democrats lost by only slim margins. In fact, notes McCabe, if just 630 votes out of the nearly 88,000 cast in those four races had gone the other way, Democrats would now control the Assembly, too.
McCabe doesn't think the Democrats owe their success to the war in Iraq or Republican scandals in Washington, D.C. "It's impossible to ignore the fact that the state Capitol has been immersed in scandals," he says. "Voters were just as disgusted at what they see happening at the state Capitol as what's been happening at the national Capitol."
As he sees it, Republicans may have been caught off guard by how much voters care about ethics. This summer, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Common Cause in Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters distributed an "ethics survey" to legislators, asking about their stance on various reform issues.
"Most people blew it off," says McCabe. But once voters and the media began asking legislators why they hadn't answered the survey, two dozen candidates asked if they could still fill it out, even though the survey's deadline had passed. "Ethics and campaign reform were issues in every single race," says McCabe.
The news for Democrats and their supporters was not all good. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk narrowly lost her bid for attorney general, and state voters approved a pro-death-penalty referendum and a constitutional amendment banning civil unions and same-sex marriage. But while Madison Rep. Mark Pocan glumly acknowledges that "people are not ready for gay marriage," he believes the amendment actually helped Democrats gain seats in the Assembly and Senate.
"Republicans may have lost a lot of ground because they put forward that discriminatory amendment," he says, noting that Fair Wisconsin mobilized the youth vote at several college campuses across the state. Those first-time voters - in Platteville, Green Bay, Oshkosh and Eau Claire - ultimately helped elect Democrats. "They may have won the referendum, but there's no question the issue backfired."
In Dane County, voters opposed the marriage amendment by a margin of two to one. They also overwhelmingly rejected the death penalty and favored Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general (see chart).
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, Pocan expects some changes in the year ahead. "We really are in a position to get a lot more of the Democratic agenda done," he says. "And if they [Republicans] continue to be obstructionist, we'll spank them again in two years."
Carol Skorupan, chair of the Dane County Republican Party, did not immediately return a call seeking her perspective.