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

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.

Scott Walker was elected governor in the Tea Party landslide of 2010, when many of the voters who cast ballots for Barack Obama in 2008 didn’t turn out, often citing a poor economy and Obama’s failure to meet their expectations. In Wisconsin -- a progressive state with a reputation for good government -- public employees, with a labor-friendly populace, soon found Walker seeking to dismantle protections that were decades in the making—particularly collective bargaining rights.

Nobody expected the groundswell that followed. Anticipating the Occupy protests that followed across America, thousands of people came to the state capitol and would not leave. The rallies in the winter of 2011 were the country’s largest pro-labor protests in decades, since before World War II. Despite dramatic days of protests—including Democratic state senators hiding to deprive the GOP majority of a quorum to pass draconian anti-labor bills—Walker rammed through laws stripping labor rights and imposed a corporatist agenda. That prompted a recall signature gathering effort that crested last winter with a million signers—half the vote that put Walker in office.

The anti-Walker tide grew in 2011 and emerged as the campaign that prompted Tuesday’s special election. In the months since Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board certified the recall, Walker and his opponents have taken their dueling campaigns nationwide. Walker has raised more than $30 million, a sum on par with leading GOP presidential candidates, including millions from Republican billionaires who have said they want to destroy labor unions.

The coalition of unions leading the recall—which was ahead of the state’s Democratic Party for most of this effort—relied on smaller donations and old-school organizing to spread its message. That campaign peaked in the massive get-out-the-vote effort seen on Tuesday. These efforts reveal there is plenty of stamina left at the grassroots, which is a notable counterpoint to the billionaire-dominated world of GOP super-PACs and seven-figure donations that has defined that Republican Party in 2012.

Various polls have found between a quarter and a third of Wisconsin households have union members. That network was tapped by public employee unions, which saw the attack on collective bargaining as part of a GOP push for privatizing public services. Other groups joined the campaign, such as the League of Young Voters, comprised of African Americans under age 30, which identified and turned out an estimated 15,000 African-American voters from inner city Milwaukee. Other national groups, such as Democracy for America and People for the American Way, also got involved, making thousands of phone calls to voters and working to protect civil rights.

As soon as the polls opened on Tuesday, there were signs that the recall vote was going to be unlike anything in recent state history. In the two largest Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee and Madison, turnout exceeded expectations by noon. At several Milwaukee precincts, extra poll workers were assigned and local election officials also coped with shortages of paper ballots and registration forms. People were still waiting to vote as polling hours closed.

“They weren’t expecting a lot of young adults in this election,” said Cary Jenkins, of the League of Young Voters. “There were long lines at 7 a.m.” The turnout in Madison was equally surprising, said Sam Mayfield, a documentary filmmaker who has covered the recall for more than a year. “I went to one polling place this morning and they thought this might be end up higher than Obama’s turnout,” she said. Madison officials said the turnout there might reach 80 percent of registered voters.

In the more conservative outlying areas, such as Green Bay, the local newspaper’s Twitter feed described equally strong turnout, saying the sentiment among voters was serious and deeply felt, though there was little rancor. Election protection hotlines recorded phone calls from some people, notably students who recently moved, reporting some were not allowed to vote under the state’s new 28-day residency requirement.

Pundits and news analysts at mainstream national news organizations sought to tie the vote to the wider 2012 electoral landscape, but their analysis mostly concerned the impact on the presidential vote—not the underlying issues that provoked the recall. They noted Obama did not campaign in the state—until sending a tweet supporting Barrett on Tuesday. Mitt Romney also stayed away, not campaigning with Walker. On Tuesday night, Romney belatedly sent his congratulations to Walker.

However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the stakes that have unfolded in Wisconsin. The RNC chair comes from Wisconsin, as does Rep. Paul Ryan, the House’s leader on cutting government services. These men know how radical Gov. Walker has been, coming from a state with a longtime consensus on labor and workplace issues. They also know this battle is not going away now that the recall is settled.

If anything, these issues, as well as national debates on healthcare reform, entitlements, student loans, bank bailouts, and a host of other economic issues, are simply moving to a larger stage. And while the GOP multi-millionaires who bankrolled Scott Walker’s campaign may be willing to write more seven-figure checks, there also will be many veterans of the Wisconsin recall who will work even harder to win in November.  


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