Both parties claim victory in Wisconsin

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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In Wisconsin, Democrats successfully recalled just two of the six challenged Republicans in the state senate, leaving the GOP in control of the chamber. The debate over what this means for the next round of recalls, as well as the national political environment, continues.

The most immediate result of Tuesday’s elections is that Democrats will not wrest control of the state senate away from Republicans. Democrats needed to win at least three new seats in the recall elections, while holding onto their own challenged incumbents’ seats. With a net Democratic gain of two, Republicans will remain in the majority.

Both sides are claiming victory.

“The wins last night are a huge victory for conservatives across the country,” said Tea Party Express communications director Levi Russell. “Governor Walker and the Republican senators did something that the federal government has failed to do: balance the budget and bring new private sector jobs to the state. That’s what makes the victory so satisfying – it’s not just about the election victories, it’s about the victory of economic prosperity over union bullying. Nationally, Wisconsin can hold its head high as an example to the rest of the country.”

Matt Seaholm, Wisconsin state director for Americans for Prosperity, called the results a rejection of the agenda of the Democrats and the labor unions.

“I think the election results last night amount to a very painful body blow to Democrats and unions in Wisconsin and across the nation,” he emailed. “This was supposed to be a repudiation of the policies passed by Gov. Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature. I’m not sure how it can be viewed as anything other than an affirmation of those policies. Unions dumped tens of millions of dollars into these recalls and the best they could do was win two seats, one of which President Obama carried by 20 points and the other had a Republican Senator who had some personal baggage that didn’t allow him to get over the finish line.”

Groups on the left had a different take.

Jess McIntosh, communications director for EMILY’s List, said that ousting two Republican senators was part of a trend that favored Democrats.

“Last night we replaced two Republicans pursuing an anti-woman, anti-family agenda with two strong Democratic women. That’s something to celebrate. And when you add those to the victories of Kathy Hochul and Janice Hahn, a clear pattern emerges that voters are rejected the extreme positions of the GOP and women are leading the way back for Democrats,” McIntosh emailed.

Markos Moulitsas was similarly optimistic in a post on Daily Kos.

“[I]f tonight was a loss, I hope we have many more such ‘losses’ in 2012,” Moulitsas wrote. “We took the fight into red territory, and took two seats. What was a safe 19-14 GOP advantage is now a narrow 17-16. If we had those numbers going into 2011, the anti-labor bill would never have passed.”

The recalls were sparked by the highly charged debate over a bill signed into law by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that curtailed the collective bargaining rights of unions. Unions and Democrats circulated recall petitions for Republican state senators who voted in favor of the bill. Republicans, in turn, started petitions to recall the Democratic state senators who fled the state in order to prevent its passage.

The petition drives resulted in nine legislators — six Republicans and three Democrats — having to face voters again. One Democrat has already survived a recall election. On Tuesday, the six Republicans had their recall. The elections for the two remaining Democrats will be held on August 16.

One question is what Tuesday’s results mean for the recalls next week, as well as the planned recall of Gov. Walker in January, now that Republicans are guaranteed a majority in the state senate.

“The danger for Democrats” next week, said Franklin, is that they will lose the seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin, who resides in a fairly Republican district. Sen. Robert Wirch is the other Democrat who is being recalled. Franklin said, “I don’t think anybody believes the Wirch seat is really in play.”

“The opportunity for Republicans is to make the senate a two-seat margin rather than a one-seat,” Franklin said, and that extra seat could be “valuable” politically.

The concern, he said, is that “Democrats are disappointed, so they stay home.” In general, the upcoming recalls are expected to have a lower energy level Tuesday’s elections. Voters turned out this week near the levels seen last November when there was a governor’s race.

Brett Healy of the MacIver Institute, a think tank that promotes free markets, opined that Tuesday’s results could dishearten Democratic supporters.

“First, it is not possible for Democrats and Big Labor to take control of the state senate,” said Healy, “and this defeat must be deflating to their financial backers and their volunteers.”

“I would imagine both parties have a hard time turning out voters at the same unbelievably high turnout rate,” Franklin said. Moreover, Franklin said he’d be “surprised if the outside groups maintained their level of intensity” in the final two recalls.

EMILY’s List, for one, won’t be around as much. The group only supports Democratic women. Since both Democratic candidates in the upcoming elections are male, EMILY’s List won’t play an active role.

Progressive Change Campaign Committee, another liberal group, said they will remain active in next week’s races and will “still be working hard to protect the brave members of the Wisconsin 14 in their elections next week,” according to Press Secretary T. Neil Sroka.

Tea Party Express is still “considering” whether or not they’ll remain involved, said Russell. But the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, which partnered with Tea Party Express on their campaign tour around Wisconsin last week, has announced that it will mount a TV and radio ad campaign attacking Sen. Wirch.

Seaholm said that “AFP will continue to be very involved with our get-out-the-vote operations in the two remaining elections.

As for the proposed recall of Walker, there has been some dissent as to whether these results could — or should — squash that plan.

Conservative groups see it as a clear message that the Walker agenda is what the people want say that it should end such ideas.

“This certainly takes the wind out of the sails for the unions desire to recall Governor Walker,” said AFP’s Seaholm. “It doesn’t mean they won’t try, but after spending all of this money in eight state senate districts, do they really want to spend a much larger amount statewide?”

But Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight blog wrote that a recall of Gov. Walker should not be out of the question after last night.

“What evidence we do have, however, suggests that a recall election against Mr. Walker would be quite close,” Silver wrote. “There are some risks to Democrats in pursuing one, like inducing voter fatigue and draining resources and candidates from other races … But in theory, their calculus shouldn’t have changed much based on Tuesday’s results.”

The more important big picture implications, says Franklin, regardless of how the results get applied specifically in Wisconsin elections, is what Tuesday’s recall says about the way this issue galvanized voters.

Franklin pointed to the incredibly high turnout on Tuesday, which “approached, and in one case, exceeded the turnout for the governor’s race last November,” a quantity that he says is “just stunning for a state senate elections in the summer.”

“There’s a lesson here. It’s not so much that one party gained a lot of over the other party, but it is the potential for this issue of state workers and unions to produce a firestorm of political mobilization,” Franklin said. “And I think that’s the issue going to other states as well, that neither side can look at these issues as easy winners. Instead, what they risk is mobilizing an electorate on both sides like we’ve never seen before and with considerable uncertainty about which side ends up prevailing in this fight.”

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Alexis Levinson