On Wisconsin


On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Champion of the right
“Forward”, our motto,
God will give thee might!

It’s hard to overstate the importance of yesterday’s wins in the Wisconsin recall elections. Needing to break even to retake control of the State Senate, the unions and their Democrat subsidiary fell short, winning only two six recalls. And while it’s hard to see what else they could have done to unseat Luther Olson, the Rs were within on 25-year-old secretary of making it 5-1. Apparently, all the union boots on the ground and national organization, along with $32,000,000, will get them a cup of coffee. Maybe a t-shirt.

Make no mistake, this was a coordinated asault on a national scale. The Democrats picked the seats they’d contest. They picked the folks who would contest them. In the case of the Fred Clark – Luther Olson race, they picked This American Life to highlight the race and do an not-too-subtle job on Gov. Scott Walker. Early in the evening, the Democrat state chair was quoted as saying that, while it would be close, his team had “done what they had to do.”

And it wasn’t enough.

Wisconsin isn’t the upper-midwest Massachussets that some Republicans would like to paint it as. The districts where Republicans won flipped back and forth between George W. Bush and Obama. Russ Feingold, today’s lefty savior against Scott Walker, only barely won re-election in 1998, not a banner year for Republicans. Tommy Thompson was elected Governor four times (although it’s not unusual for states to elect governors of opposing parties, while remaining consistent in the composition of the state legislature; look at Colorado from 1962 – 2002). In 2002, Ed Thompson, Tommy’s brother, running on the Libertarian ticket, took 10% of the vote, thus delivering the office to the Democrat Jim Doyle with only 45% of the vote, the ideal election outcome for Libertarians.

The Republicans lost control of the state legislature in the 70s,and the Dems’ high-water mark came in the 1976 Presidential Election. With Carter barely carrying the state, the Dems racked up a 66-33 majority in the House, and a 23-10 majority in the Senate. But the Republicans were never uncompetitive, and by the 90s had clawed their way back to parity in the State Senate, and had retaken the House. In fact, 2009-2010 was the first legislative session with a Democrat House majority since 1993. The Republicans had held a 19-14 Senate majority as recently as the 1995-96 legislature.

Still up until 2010, the birthplace of both the Republican Party and the most welcoming host of the political virus known as the Progressive Movement had a definite leftward tilt. There’s a reason that “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette is one of the few Republicans my history textbooks looked on with favor. For much of the time in the 1920s and 30s, the main opposition party to usually-lopsided Republican majorities wasn’t the Dems, it was the Progressives, with a few Socialists thrown in for good measure:

Senate House
Year Democrat Republican Prog. Socialist Democrat Republican Prog. Socialist
1919 2 27 4 5 79 16
1921 2 27 4 2 92 6
1923 30 3 1 89 10
1925 30 3 1 92 7
1927 31 2 3 89 8
1929 31 2 6 90 3
1931 1 30 2 2 89 9
1933 9 23 1 59 13 24 3
1935 13 6 14 35 17 45 3
1937 9 8 16 31 21 46 2
1939 6 16 11 15 53 32
1941 3 24 6 15 60 25
1943 4 23 6 14 73 13
1945 6 22 5 19 75 6

Source: Wisconsin Legislative Blue Book

NPR’s This American Life did an extended story on the political discord in Wisconsin. The gist of it was that everybody got along just swimingly, Democrats and Republicans, dogs and cats, until Scott Walker forced – forced, I tell you! – them to pick sides, and then the body politic was rent in half. The storyline probably is true. The lefty press and the lefty Dems were perfectly happy to rhapsodize about Wisconsin’s benign political culture, where everyone was friends, as long as they more or less got their way. But when actual conservatives were elected – as in, got more votes than the other guy – and decided that this actually meant they should be implementing policies they had espoused during the campaign, well, that was just too much.

Which means that last night’s victory – and next week’s possible extensions – weren’t just a ratification of party labels. They were a conscious vote in favor of policies that the new government has pursued.

The unions weren’t just counting on a history of Wisconsinites voting Democrat.  They were counting on a deep-seated political culture that has always leaned decisively to the left.  The specific districts they targeted had favored Republicans in 2010, but had only narrowly supported George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and had voted for Obama in 2008. That they didn’t return to form says that Wisconsinites – at least those voting last night, are still willing to give their conservative experiment more time, and that the Democrats haven’t given them any reason not to.

UPDATE: Seth Mandel over at Commentary argues that the Wisconsin Republicans should learn to be less aggressive in their agenda.  I couldn’t disagree more strongly.  This gives the opposition an unearned victory.  He uses as his counterexample Chris Christie who, in a far less friendly environment, was able to get legislative Dems to sign on to the fiscal aspect of his plan, without trying to defang the unions.  Christie may have accomplished all he could under the circumstances, but it’s not as though he won’t have to face all that public money in his re-election campaign.  Scott Walker’s legislative majority survived to see his approach vindicated in finance, and given at least cautious approval by the electorate.  The fact that this was, by and large, your money, your tax money, financing the opposition made the candle worth the game.

What the Republicans, in particular the national party, needs to learn, is to go on the offensive, or at least be nimble enough to fight defensively.  The fact that the Dems had the initiative from the beginning meant they could pick the most congenial battleground they could imagine.  Why on earth was the RNC caught flat-footed?  Why on earth was there no concerted effort by the national party to get various state parties involved in making phone calls?  Here in Colorado, we managed to provide a certain amount of help, but it’s quite clear that this was, like most other out-of-state efforts, on our own initiative, and mostly from the bottom-up.  There’s no excuse for that sort of thing, no matter what’s going on at the Capitol or in the presidential nominating process.

Which means that last night’s victory – and next week’s possible extensions – weren’t just a ratification of party labels. They were a conscious vote in favor of policies that the new government has pursued.

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