News from Wisconsin Not All Bad

by Michael Keegan

Despite the national headlines, last night’s results from Wisconsin were a mixed bag. It appears that by just a few hundred votes, our efforts in the Racine State Senate district were successful, meaning we flipped the Senate to Democratic control and the new majority will be able to block [Gov. Scott] Walker’s aggressive ideological agenda moving forward.

People for the American Way’s intense focus on that senate district and, particularly, our efforts in the Latino community there no doubt made a huge difference — very likely the difference — in putting us over the top.

Lessons Not Too Late for the Learning

There’s no point in sugarcoating the disappointment we all feel about the governor’s race — that was a tough loss. But we should feel good about our Senate victory and good about the work we did together to stand up to the Right Wing’s overreach and attacks on Americans’ fundamental rights. Further, this election is chock full of important lessons moving into the November elections and it needs to be a wake-up call to progressives across the country. How did they beat over 1 million citizens signing recall petitions? Simple: with enormous, unprecedented amounts of money. The Citizens United-era landscape, of Super PACs and unrestrained corporate and special interest spending, is presenting new monumental challenges that Democrats and progressives must find a way to overcome.

Find out more about the startling amount of money behind the Wisconsin recall election>>

Scott Walker outspent Tom Barrett by a margin of 7 to 1. He had been effectively campaigning against the recall with TV ads promoting his policies since the end of last year. Because Wisconsin state law allowed him to raise unlimited funds starting very early, Walker was controlling the message uncontested for many months before the recall election ever took shape.

In addition to TV ads by Walker and his allies, the Koch brothers-founded Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) spent $10 million dollars on a field operation starting back in January to convince Wisconsinites that Walker’s policies were right and working. The persuasion and get out the vote operation of AFP alone included, by their own reporting, 70 paid staff members (not including many more volunteers). And the Wisconsin GOP along with the RNC had 20 field offices across the state, and made more than 4 million voter contacts — twice as many as they made before the 2010 election.

The exit polls from the recall offer critically important takeaways — some encouraging. We saw that Scott Walker’s long campaign and overwhelming money advantage was effective in selling many voters on his message. But this election does not mark a hard swing to the right for Wisconsin.

Run Against the Recall Process Successful

Most importantly, among voters in this recall election, President Obama outpolled Mitt Romney by as many as 12 points. So rest assured, the Obama voters who voted to keep Walker have not abandoned the president or converted to right-wingers. A majority of voters still had a favorable opinion about public sector unions and labor’s role, although somewhat paradoxically, a slim majority also said they agreed with Walker’s budget plan that stripped collective bargaining rights for most public employees. This shows that Walker’s obfuscation about his record and fudged numbers worked on the voters he reached, but their progressive-leaning values appear to remain intact.

Finally, we must consider that Walker, in large part, was running against the recall process itself — and that was a contest he clearly won. A whopping 60 percent of polled voters said that “recall elections are only appropriate for official misconduct,” and another 9 percent said they were never appropriate, showing that voters didn’t necessarily support Walker, they just opposed the recall. This is a testament to Walker’s ability to downplay his radical overreach as mere “policy disagreement” — something he was only able to do because of his unprecedented campaign war chest and the massive spending of his allies.

There’s much more analysis to do, and it is very important to take every lesson we can to make sure we’re equipped for victory in November. But long story short, even though our victory was short of what we had hoped for, every minute of this fight was worth it. The Wisconsinites who stood up to Walker and his cronies, and the activists from coast to coast who supported their efforts, were nothing short of heroic. Φ

Michael Keegan is President of People for the American Way.

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