Was Scott Walker’s recall victory the swan song of labor or the rallying point for a new era of progressive activism?
It depends on whom you ask.
Just hours after the polls closed on June 5, conservative pundits pronounced the U.S. labor movement dead and predicted another far-right sea change for America.
“What happened in Wisconsin signals a shift in political mood and assumption,” opined conservative pundit Peggy Noonan. “Public employee unions were beaten back and defeated in a state with a long progressive tradition. ... The vote was a blow to the power and prestige not only of the unions but of the blue-state budgetary model.”
Noonan’s right-wing colleagues agreed heartily, but non-partisan political observers cautioned against reading too much into an election that was aberrant in so many ways. Exit pollsters found it likely that a significant number of Walker voters were not so much endorsing the governor’s draconian corporate-right policies as they were objecting to the concept of the recall.
Sixty percent of voters surveyed said that recall races should be reserved only for cases of official misconduct. Although a potential indictment looms over Walker, no charges have been filed against him.
If voters were indeed more intent on expressing displeasure for the recall than pleasure with the governor, it would explain the surprising level of support for President Barack Obama among Walker voters. Seventeen percent of those who cast ballots for the governor told exit pollsters they plan to vote for the president come November.
At any rate, it’s difficult to see Walker’s victory as the first wave of a tsunami.
Walker did win decisively. But his 53 percent of the vote was not a landslide, and it represented only a 1 percent gain from Walker’s 2010 match-up against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
But Walker spent $30 million on advertising this time around – more than seven times the amount that Barrett spent. That’s an insanely high price tag for such a measly gain. It suggests that voters are more entrenched than persuadable, more stuck than moving in any direction.
There really is nothing in the scenario surrounding the recall that signals a “shift in political mood and assumption,” as Noonan put it. Instead the election showed the intractable persistence of the nation’s 50-50 political split. This was further demonstrated by the gain Democrats made in taking one of the four Senate seats up for grabs on June 5, giving them control of that chamber.
In Senate District 21, Democrat John Lehman of Racine turned out Sen. Van Wanggaard, a solid Walker supporter, even as Walker won his own race in that district. Yet Lehman stands galaxies apart ideologically from both Walker and Wanggaard.
There was no “shift in political mood” in Senate District 21 – just more of the confusion and volatility that we’ve seen at the polls nationwide. In fact, just a week after Walker’s victory, a Democrat retained the congressional seat vacated by Gabrielle Giffords in an Arizona district that the GOP had expected to pick up.
Lehman was backed by some of Walker’s most ardent foes, including teachers, retired autoworkers and members of building trades unions.
Planned Parenthood sponsored its largest paid media campaign to date attacking Wanggaard’s record, including his votes to limit women’s access to cancer screenings, birth control, comprehensive sex education and women’s equal pay protections.
“While we have lost the opportunity to elect a women’s health champion for governor, we have regained a pro-women’s health majority with the election of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin’s endorsed candidate John Lehman,” said executive director Tanya Atkinson.
The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters also campaigned hard for Lehman.
“Electing John Lehman in the Senate recall election is another nail in the coffin of the open-pit mining bill,” said Kerry Schumann, the organization’s executive director, referring to environmentalists’ greatest challenge during the last Assembly session.
While Republicans earned bragging rights from the Walker recall race, their foes realized strategic gains. The recall races of the past year have brought together unprecedented cooperation among progressive groups in everything from allocating resources to messaging to getting out the vote.
Working together sometimes for the first time and across issue lines, progressive groups created a juggernaut that could pay off in future elections.
Dynamic new groups such as We Are Wisconsin also sprang up around last year’s protests and the subsequent recall efforts, engaging a new generation of progressive activists. Democracy for America said its representatives in Wisconsin knocked on over 140,000 doors and its members made over 200,000 calls in the final six weeks of the campaign.
“For the first time last February, we saw the intersection of many communities and constituencies that had not worked together as deeply or intensely as we did last year,” said Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin. “I think those relationships will remain strong and will be the key to changing our state government.”
“Wisconsinites are awake and paying attention,” Schumann said. “Whether it was engaging their legislators on the open-pit mining bill or rallying at the Capitol last winter, people are involved in their democracy like never before.”
Belanger was heartened that Wisconsin’s LGBT community did not become the target of negative GOP campaigning, despite Walker’s self-avowed “divide and conquer” style of leadership. “It indicates how far we have come in this movement,” Belanger said.
She also drew hope from the Senate victory. “With a pro-fairness majority in the state senate we have a stop-gap in the Legislature against any anti-LGBT legislation,” Belanger said. “We will continue to try to build bipartisan support for LGBT issues. And we will continue to advance equality in local communities and workplaces across the state and to defend our past successes.”