WASHINGTON — There will be no magic potion, no instant formula for Democrats and progressives struggling to come back from their disastrous 2010 election losses.
They had hoped that Tuesday’s recall elections in Wisconsin would provide a narrative-changing breakthrough, proof-positive that the overreaching conservatives who now dominate the Republican Party had ignited a middle-of-the-road voter rebellion and inspired a legion of labor and liberal activists who would offer a definitive riposte to the tea party.
What happened instead was not without promise for Democrats, but it was also a sign of the resiliency of conservative activism — and the power of conservative money.
By holding on to four of its six contested state Senate seats, Gov. Scott Walker’s party maintained its majority and a right to claim victory. But that majority now has a precarious one-seat advantage. While Republicans hope they might pick up another seat next week by winning at least one of two recalls directed against Democratic incumbents, Walker seemed to signal he understood that his was not an unalloyed triumph.
The often-pugnacious governor was remarkably mild in a statement he issued after the results were in. “I believe we can work together to grow jobs and improve our state,” he said. “In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward.” One Democrat called it the “most conciliatory statement he has ever made.” In the meantime, Democrats were touting the potential of their working with Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate who has frequently resisted Walker’s archconservatism.
Still, this was small comfort compared to what might have been. If only about 1,100 votes had switched in the closest contest, Democrats would have won the extra Senate seat they needed and would now be celebrating their use of Walker’s frontal attack on the collective bargaining rights of public employees to produce a political realignment.
Republicans had shrewdly found ways of delaying the balloting. This allowed some of the white-hot anger of the winter’s labor battles to dissipate — even if the unions put everything they had into intense organizing.
You could tell even before the polls closed that Democrats feared they would fall short. “I just wish these elections had been held a week ago,” said a Wisconsin-based Democratic consultant as reports of high turnout made their way around the state. He argued that the anti-Walker message was muddled by a week of economic turmoil spawned by the debt-ceiling fight and a plummeting stock market. The dominant news was national and international, about President Obama and Congress, not about Wisconsin, Walker and his state Senate allies.
These contests will be studied as a laboratory test of wide-open campaign finance laws that allowed outside groups to pour millions of dollars into the state. Conservatives succeeded in using their large financial advantage to blunt the impact of labor and progressive organizing. All the spending had the effect of transforming the recalls from a progressive crusade into a typical and dispiriting electoral trench war and its weapons of choice: negative media ads and nasty mailings.
In truth, the euphoria created by the initial anti-Walker upsurge disguised the fact that the recalls were always destined to be difficult. “This was an extraordinarily hard set of races to win,” said Mark Mellman, a pollster who worked with the Wisconsin Democrats. “All these were incumbents who won in 2008 when Barack Obama was sweeping the state. Yet the Republicans lost one-third of their incumbents,” referring to the two senators recalled. “I’d be delighted if the Republicans lost one-third of their incumbents in 2012.”
Mellman, of course, was putting the best spin on the results for the Democrats. But it’s true that these were fights waged in Republican territory. As Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out in a helpful analysis, while all six districts were swing areas that had voted for both Walker and Obama, five of the six were more Republican than the state as a whole in 2008 and again in 2010. (And Democrats carried the other district handily.)
Republicans can say, and it’s true, that a very conservative governor carried out a very conservative agenda and escaped defeat. But he did not escape rebuke, and progressives can legitimately claim that having watched conservatives take fight after fight to their adversaries, a labor-liberal coalition reversed these roles in Wisconsin. Conservatives withstood this assault. Progressives made modest but measurable advances.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post, where this column appeared first.