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Are Wisconsin's Progressives the First Spark in a Populist Movement?

Ambivalence in Wisconsin is ripe, with both the GOP and Democrats declaring victory. Now, the state is either the beginning of something great, or the end of what could have been.

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Stephanie Haw needed a good cry.

On the night of August 9th, the rowdy crowd inside Hawk's bar in downtown Madison grew ever quieter as the election results trickled in. Earlier that day, with the nation watching, voters statewide cast their ballots in Wisconsin's eagerly awaited recall elections that threatened the seats of six Republican state senators. Democrats needed to win three of them to regain control of the state senate and block Republican Governor Scott Walker's hard-line agenda. But it wasn't to be. Deep into the night, an MSNBC anchor announced that a fourth GOP senator, Alberta Darling of north Milwaukee and the nearby suburbs, had clinched a narrow victory.

Haw slipped outside. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this, she thought. Progressives had mobilized damn near every possible supporter they could, phone banking and door knocking and Facebooking and Tweeting, and in the end, it still wasn't enough. She thought of all the energy poured into the recall effort, and of her two-year-old daughter running around the house shouting "Recall Walker! Recall Walker!" Standing on the sidewalk, she burst into tears.

I met Haw and her mother later that night at Hawk's. We sat around chewing over the election results till the bar emptied. Haw, who was wearing a red t-shirt with SOLIDARITY emblazoned on the front, said simply, "I feel terrible that we lost." I reminded her what the Democrats had been up against: with one exception, the six districts in play leaned to the right, and all six of those Republicans had won in 2008 despite the Obama frenzy that gripped the state. ( He won it by nearly 14 percentage points.) She nodded along with me and then summed her feelings up this way: "I guess it's the best of times and the worst of times."

That ambivalence seemed to carry through Wisconsin's historic summer of recalls, which ended on August 16th when a pair of Democratic state senators easily defended their seats from a Republican recall effort. Which is to say, when the dust settled in the Badger State, there was no clear winner.

Wisconsin Democrats took five out of the summer's nine recalls, and also won the overall vote count by 50.7% to 49.3%. They failed, however, in their chief goal: winning enough seats to wrest control of the State Senate majority and so shift the balance of power away from Governor Walker and his allies in the legislature.

That didn't stop Mike Tate, chair of the state Democratic Party, from crowing that Democrats had clinched the "overall victory." Republicans, meanwhile, cast the results as a vindication of Walker and his Republican game plan. "Wisconsin now emerges from this recall election season with a united Republican majority," Wisconsin GOP chairman Brad Courtney bragged. "[We’ve] beaten off an attack from national unions and special interests and emerged steadfastly committed to carrying forward a bold job creation agenda."

Liberal and conservative media similarly claimed victory. The Nation's John Nichols, the most vocal cheerleader for the Democrats, wrote that their recall wins dealt "a serious blow to [Republican] authority inside the state Capitol." Conservative blogger Owen Robinson was typical when he opined in the West Bend Daily News, "The people decided that they were pretty happy with the direction the Republicans are moving the state and let them retain power in Madison."

Can it be both? If not, then who really won in Wisconsin? And what does that portend for the fledgling movement sparked by the labor uprising in February and March?