"Welcome to Wisconsin!"

"Welcome to Wisconsin!" by Great Beyond on flickr

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Tuesday’s recall elections in Wisconsin were a stunning rebuke to the Republican party. As Craig Gilbert wrote back in March: “History tells us that most of the 16 recall attempts under way in Wisconsin are likely to fail. It also tells us that if three or four succeed, it would be entirely without precedent.”

Gilbert also noted that it marked the first time a local recall campaign was considered to have national (even international) scope and implications. Judging by how money poured in from both the left and right it certainly was national in funding, though national media did the lackluster job it’s done since the start.

How did it look at the end of the night? For only the fourth time in American history, two officials were ousted in a single year. In other words, an exceptionally rare success. Funny enough, there was almost universal triumphalism on the right, and on the left there were plenty of folks who sounded dejected. Why was that? Because there was an absurdly high bar set for success on the left: Three successful recalls. Something that has never, ever been done.

Three victories would have switched control of the state Senate from Republican to Democrat, which sure would have been nice! Instead the GOP maintains a 17-16 edge. But even a single recall is an enormous task, which is why before Tuesday there had only been seven individual ones in addition to the 3 doubles. Thirteen total in American history. Local activists may have been too close to appreciate the magnitude of what they accomplished, but it was an extraordinary result.

Further, the electoral landscape changed even though the GOP retained control. John Nichols explained (via):

That one-vote GOP majority becomes significant from an organizational and policy standpoint. That’s because one Republican senator, Dale Schultz, voted against the governor’s assault on collective bargaining – which he referred to as “colossal overreach.” Schultz has been highly critical of the governor in recent weeks, and the extent to which he decided to work with the Democrats could tip the balance on labor, education and public services issues where the moderate Schultz has differed with his fellow Republicans. 

They now will have to take Schultz into account instead of taking him for granted. Further, they just saw two of their colleagues get their asses dumped for attacking the middle class. Presumably they’ve received the message that further attacks could spark a similar backlash. While Scott Walker may have a sinecure waiting for him at some lavishly funded wingnut welfare outpost, state senators cannot count on such comfortable and lucrative retirements.

And speaking of Walker, he’s got a recall effort of his own to face once he hits his one year gubernatorial anniversary on January 3rd. How eager do you think he will be to carry water for the Koch brothers knowing he will face what looks to be a very close election in under five months? The entire leadership of the state has been put on notice. Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper are now the poster children for what happens when you attack the middle class.

That’s not all, either. A politician fighting a recall is a politician with less time to spend busting unions. Sure, they hustled through voter ID and redistricting laws, but those are less urgent than the effort to end the right of workers to collectively bargain. (In any event, suppressing turnout is in conservatives’ DNA, so that’s something to be expected of them in any environment.)

Also, it puts the issue front and center again. There may have been thin coverage outside of the state, but it appeared to dominate news coverage for a good long while in Wisconsin. Getting people talking about middle class issues is an important part of changing the political environment and persuading folks to rethink just what is possible. A news cycle centered on the importance of unions is one not spent debating another round of tax cuts for the boys at the yacht club.

Finally, there’s what Josh Marshall called the “organizational muscle” angle. This isn’t about Tuesday’s elections, it isn’t about the recall election for Walker early next year, and it isn’t about the general election at the end of it. This is about an ongoing process of civic engagement, of finding a way to identify the issues that mean the most to us and to advocate for them as forcefully as we can.

I tend to be wary of obsessive election night result tracking because it inflates their importance to crazy levels, as though our very fate hangs in the balance. That makes it too easy to get complacent from a win or despondent from a loss. The outcomes matter obviously, but we need to get in the mindset that either way we have to wake up the day after, roll up our sleeves and get back to work. Elections come and go, but movements endure.

The recall successes were victories in their own right, but they were also victories for what they represented: the latest fruits from the labor of activists. There is already an impressive list, starting with the sustained protests in Madison, to the signature gathering to trigger the recalls, to the campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts in the days leading up to the elections.

There was an enormous amount of work – much of it the kind of plodding, boring, unglamourous drudgery required to make the machinery of government creak into motion – that a huge population engaged in over a sustained period. And they show no signs of flagging. If what we have seen for the last six months continues to hold – if there continues to be a determined commitment by a large and diverse coalition to turn back the assault on workers – it’s hard to see how Tuesday’s victories can be seen as anything other than unqualified successes.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.