Democratic State Senate

Democratic former state Sen. John Lehman high-fives supporters at the Racine Labor Center Tuesday night.

Associated Press

How did Democrat John Lehman beat the odds and turn out one of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's favorite legislators -- on the same night that the governor and his allies were beating back recall challenges?

Well, let's start with Lehman, who has deep roots in Racine, his Senate district's largest city. A veteran legislator who was turned out in 2010, Lehman is the exact opposite of the Walkerites. He doesn't just support unions and public education; when he served in the Legislature, Lehman was the chief sponsor of legislation to make labor education part of the statewide curriculum.

That made him popular with union members in what has historically been a solid labor town. They mounted a major mobilization in Racine, where teachers, retired autoworkers and members of building trades unions worked their tails off on his behalf.

But in a closely divided county, which voted for Walker for governor, Lehman had something else.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.

The group was actively engaged in the recall fight, particularly at the grass-roots level statewide. But it put television ads on air in only one of the four state Senate districts where Republicans were being challenged by Democrats: the 21st, where Lehman faced Walker ally Van Wanggaard.

One ad, which aired as part of the group's largest campaign expenditure in history, featured women asking: "Senator Wanggaard? What did we ever do to you?" Another told the story of a women who was struggling with cancer and asked why Wanggaard voted to defund cancer screenings.

The ads were exceptionally well-produced -- some of the best of the campaign.

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It's fair to suggest the intervention by Planned Parenthood helped Lehman secure his narrow 779-vote win -- the only victory for a Democrat Tuesday. And it is notable that his win tips control of the Senate not just to the Democrats but to a pro-women's health majority.

As Planned Parenthood's Executive Director Tanya Atkinson says: "The victory in SD 21 proves that Wisconsin women are watching and working to protect and preserve reproductive health and rights."

Amid all the analysis of the recall fight, her point is well taken. 

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.