Parsing the 2014 elections


A race is lost, and so is a rising star.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mary Burke took on the uphill — in retrospect, quixotic — task of trying to unseat a national hero of the corporate-backed right. Tea party leaders considered Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election essential to their long-term success in reducing government services, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and eliminating unions. Some right-wing leaders said that Walker’s defeat would be seen as a repudiation of those goals, since Walker strode boldly to the forefront of promoting that agenda.

According to right-wing thinking, a victory by the likes of Walker, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback would embolden other state leaders to follow them without fear of voter reprisal. On the other hand, if those governors had suffered defeat, GOP political strategists might be inclined to interpret the corporate right’s policies as too politically risky. But all four governors won, giving the Koch brothers and their corporate colleagues reason to feel vindicated. 

Those victories, however, were far from decisive concerning the corporate right’s agenda. Kasich was helped by a deeply flawed opponent, as well as by the way his state has benefitted from the nation’s economic recovery. Scott won by only one percent of the vote — and only because voter turnout was mystifyingly low in heavily Democratic Dade and Broward counties. 

Democratic turnout is generally small in midterm elections and polls show that Republican voters were more determined to punish Democratic President Barack Obama than to support right-wing corporate policies, which the majority of voters don’t even understand.

If Democrats in Milwaukee and Dane counties had turned out for challenger Mary Burke in the same numbers that they have during the past two presidential elections, Walker would not have won by the 5.7 percent margin he did, or perhaps not even at all.

Former President George W. Bush made the mistake of interpreting his slim 2004 reelection victory as a mandate to continue his first-term agenda. The results were losses in the 2006 midterm elections and a Democratic landslide in 2008. Pundits expect that history to repeat itself in 2016 if the GOP treats its 2014 victories, which reflected antipathy toward Obama more than anything else, as a burning desire among voters for more of the GOP’s corporate-right agenda.

Progressive Wisconsinites owe Burke gratitude for operating such a disciplined, energetic campaign on our behalf. She promised to work hard every day if elected, and judging by her spirited and tenacious campaign, we have every reason to believe her. One of the greatest pleasures of observing the gubernatorial race was watching Burke find her footing on the campaign trail. But the last-minute, right-wing media smears perpetuated against Burke, still largely a stranger to the electorate, put her on the defensive at a time when she was gaining momentum. That, combined with typically lower Democratic midterm turnout, anti-Obama backlash and the long-established history of losses suffered by the party in the White House during the sixth year of an eight-year term, sealed the deal against her.

Nevertheless, Burke’s fortitude, commitment and remarkable restraint in a contest that grew more vicious as Election Day neared will not be forgotten. While she has vowed since the election to never again campaign for statewide office, we hope her example galvanizes progressives equally committed to reclaiming this state from corporate interests that see Wisconsin as nothing more than a political pawn. Wisconsin deserves leaders in her mold, pragmatic individuals with real-world experience who want to solve Wisconsin’s problems, not create more division.