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Progressive Movement Rises Up But Can't Oust Walker From Wisconsin Governorship

Walker outspent Barrett 8-to-1, but Democrats may have regained control of the state senate.

Progressives held their breath and grimaced Tuesday evening as the trickle of Wisconsin recall election returns showed that anti-labor Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and four senior GOP state officials, were not going to be removed from office, despite overwhelming turnout in the state’s Democratic urban strongholds. 

With 99 percent of the state’s 3,424 precincts reporting, Walker led Barrett 53 to 46 percent, a lead of nearly 173,000 votes out of 2.5 million votes cast. Barrett told reporters that he called Walker, “and congratulated him on his victory tonight. We agreed that it is important for us to work together.”

A fifth race may offer some consolation to progressives. It appears that Democrat state senate candidate John Lehman beat the incumbent Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard by 779 votes out of more than 71,000 cast, according to late-breaking  unofficial returns. Should Lehman's victory hold up when the final count is certified, the Democrats would become the majority party in the state senate, breaking the GOP's lock on legislative power. 

The conclusion of Wisconsin’s special recall election capped months of frenzied grassroots organizing that captivated progressives from coast to coast, prompting a record turnout that could only be compared to a presidential election. In the state’s two largest Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee and Madison, turnout exceeded all expectations as polling places ran out of voter registration forms and ballots and officials scrambled to accommodate voters.

Although the final official results will not be certified until next week, unofficial returns and media exit polls showed that the targeted Republican officer-holders never lost their leads on Tuesday evening. The sole exception was Wanggaard, who led for most of the night but apparently lost when the final votes came in. He has not yet conceded. 

Walker’s win prompted top Republican Party officials who are from Wisconsin, notably RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, to taunt Democrats—taking aim at Obama’s supporters. However, exit polls suggested that while most voters were pro-labor, a majority said they did not feel that removing Walker and the other officeholders was the way to respond to an aggressive anti-union and pro-corporate agenda.

Ironically, Walker’s tenure as governor is still tenuous. He faces likely public corruption charges for activities in his office while he was the Milwaukee County executive—charges that could pressure him to resign. However that investigation, while implicating his closest former aides and apparently closing in on Walker, was not the main issue before the state’s voters.    

The recall’s outcome is likely to harden political attitudes in Wisconsin and across the country as the 2012 campaign season continues. While there will be much hand-wringing and second-guessing among the recall’s organizers and supporters—unions, students, local and national groups, and ordinary citizens—the efforts of all involved should not be minimized.

The recall was an unprecedented effort to counter some of the wealthiest interests in the country, people who saw Scott Walker’s attack on public employees as a step toward their goal of dismantling government services and long-established worker protections. That so many Wisconsin residents became engaged, signed recall petitions and voted, suggests that the struggle for a more just society is not finished by any means. If anything, the nation’s progressive community has never been so well-organized and motivated this early in a presidential campaign cycle.

Indeed, if Democrats have retaken their state senate, then the recall will have altered the state's political landscape.

Recall’s Deep Echoes

The recall reflected all of the political schisms facing America. Most visibly, it pitted big money and a harsh anti-union agenda against grassroots people and groups standing up for workplace rights and benefits, especially for public employees and civil servants. The recall also embodied split attitudes about the role and scope of government, safety nets, state spending, and the obligations and accountability of top elected officials.

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