Democrats, Labor Narrowly Lose in Wisconsin

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 10 2011 8:48 AM

Democrats, Labor Narrowly Lose in Wisconsin

It was close, but they couldn't put it off. Democrats only won two more seats in the Wisconsin state Senate last night, falling short of the third they needed to take over the upper house by around 2,200 votes. The Republican senators they managed to oust were Dan Kapanke, who had held a fairly liberal district, and Randy Hopper, who's won his last election by a couple hundred votes and been beset since then by a sex scandal.

What happened to Democrats? You could blame the money, if you like. Unions signalled early on that the takeover of the Senate would be a defining cause for them in 2011. They and Democratic-aligned groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America spent upwards of $12 million to win two seats. But just as we saw in the state supreme court race, which was always supposed to be tougher for Democrats because of the timing and unusual goal, conservative groups were able to blitz into the election in the final month and outspend liberal groups. Nearly $8 million alone was spent in the fight for Sen. Alberta Darling's seat, which Republicans held, and which the state Democratic chairman had called "the crown jewel of our efforts."

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Democrats did gain ground. These seats were won by Republicans in 2008, when Barack Obama was easily carrying the state, and carrying their districts. But compare this swing to the swing in Massachusetts in January 2010. Republicans were able to win a statewide race after losing the presidential election there by 26 points. You can't avoid this conclusion: Voters then and there were angrier about the health care law than voters now and here were angry about Scott Walker's budget repair bill. The backlash for Scott Walker's radical* reforms is survivable.

Does this make Democratic recall campaigns of Walker or other state senators less likely in 2012? Hard to see how not. One of Walker's aces was that economic recovery, which had, yes, started under the defeated Demorats in 2010, kept up after the passage of his bills. Unless that reverses itself, what's the anti-Walker argument?

*I say this in the non-perjorative, Gingrichian sense.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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