Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wisconsin fights back

“It’s a great day for America!” Insomniacs and late-shifters know, of course, that native Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson bellows that every night on his “The Late Late Show With (His Name Here),”as a springboard to reciting the folly that is part of his adopted nation.

Any natives of this country, under siege like never before, might convincingly argue that every day this country gets itself out of bed in these times is a great day. But some are greater than others.

Today qualifies because this is the first day after the Wisconsin state Senate recall election, a vote that saw two Democratic challengers topple sitting Republicans state senators in largely Republican districts. In the hours since the election results, a lot’s been made about the Democrats falling short of the three seats needed to regain control of the state Senate, in order to stop or reverse the anti-union initiatives of Gov. Scott Walker.

Assessments that don’t look further than the immediate numbers miss the finer historical details of Wisconsin state politics, and they ignore the ways in which a populist revolt can channel its energies into the electoral machinery, winning in its ability to send a message to conservative extremists. A great day isn’t always precipitated by a victory.

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The good news came in a sweet one-two punch on Tuesday. In the 32nd District, Jennifer Shilling beat incumbent GOP state Sen. Dan Kapanke like a toy drum, 55 percent to 45 percent. More narrowly, in the 18th District, Jessica King defeated state Sen. Randy Hopper, 51 percent to 49 percent.

TPM quoted Mike Tate, the Wisconsin State Democratic Chairman, saying that the elections, despite falling short of turning over control of Democrats, “show how vulnerable the Republicans are going into 2012, and how vulnerable Gov. Walker is going into a potential recall himself.”

King, who prevailed in her district, made the same point in a post-victory interview with David Shuster on “Countdown.” “The 18th state Senate district does not have a history of electing Democrats, so what that means to me is that a lot of individuals who self-identify as Republicans or self-identify as independent agree with the Democratic base that the current [Walker] administration is overreaching.”

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John Nichols, the on-point reporter for The Nation who’s covered Wisconsin and the Imperial Walker from the beginning, told Ed Schultz of MSNBC that, despite failing to wrest control from the governor this time, there’s reasons to be upbeat. Quite possibly, he said, it may not be over even when it’s over.

Nichols alluded to the general repudiation of Walker, a climate of antipathy among mainstream Wisconsin voters that’s just bad on its face, regardless of the specifics of policy.

And Nichols mentioned the X factor, the man who could give Walker many sleepless nights in the months to come: Dale Schultz, the lone Republican state senator who voted to oppose the Walker “budget repair” bill (now state law) as well as other Walker initiatives.

Schultz’s renegade actions, his repeated willingness to bolt from the Republicans in his number, suggests that Sen. Schultz could be that worst Walker nightmare: someone who won’t drink the Kool-Aid tea, a moderate Republican willing to place his convictions, and his constituents, over the reflex of party affiliation.

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Then, of course, there’s the rapidly building momentum among voters for Walker to stand for his own recall. In a report the day before the election, Nichols gave MSNBC a pre-vote snapshot that was cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on optimistic. “It’s absolutely incredible,” he told Ed Schultz. “I’ve seen presidential-level intensity. Signs are everywhere, people with clipboards on the streets, the cars are driving around ...”

Much of this had to do with the election itself, of course, but the fever for a Walker recall has been growing steadily. It was something that Tanya Somander of Think Progress reported on Tuesday:

While Walker can tread the recall backlash until January of 2012, Wisconsinites are forcing him to face the music now.

Last week, Wisconsin kicked off its 10-day state fair. It’s traditional for the governor to herald the fair’s opening day. But when Walker took the stage Thursday, he was met with a hail of boos and protests signs. “This is the one place where all across the state where people can actually come together,” he tried to shout over the crowd. “At least most people can.” As he walked off stage, the crowd chanted “Recall Walker!”

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The fault for Democrats will be if they look at this as an anomaly, if they buy into the unusualness of these election results, instead of implanting the baseline belief, in themselves and their supporters, that what seems to be an outlier event can be more than a rarity. With the right message and the right messenger, victories such as those enjoyed by King and Shilling don’t have to be the exception that proves the rule.

For progressives and moderates, maybe that’s the most positive underlying fact in the Wisconsin election, a fact that’s exportable as the news of the outcome itself:

In the first major election of the post-Citizens United era, progressives and the Democratic base proved they can win, and win decisively, despite the inroads of big contributions from outsider Astroturf organizers and trust-fund magnates — and despite the ominous implications of the very Supreme Court decision that gave those deep-pocketed charlatans the power to make those contributions in the first place.

Money doesn’t always matter the most in American politics. Quiet as kept, there’s a little matter of Message that often carries the day. Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper would probably testify to that right now. Scott Walker may be next.

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