The failure of Democrats to win control of the Wisconsin Senate in yesterday's recall election of six Republican senators is sobering news, coming at a time when "sobering" is about as good as news gets. Democrats unseated two GOP solons yesterday, one of whom was doubtless hurt by news of a messy divorce, but were unable to triumph over a third, which enabled Republicans to cling to a one-seat majority in the state's upper house.
By all accounts, turnout was exceptionally high for a special election, but then, turnout should have been exceptionally high. The elections have been the focus of national attention for months, as labor poured in resources in hopes that a victory would signal that Wisconsin -- birthplace of turn-of-the-century progressivism, home to Milwaukee burghers' social democracy and Madison students' radicalism, and the first state in the nation to legalize collective bargaining for public employees -- rejected Republican Governor Scott Walker's new law stripping bargaining rights from those public employees. Wisconsin, though, is just as much a home to reaction as it has been to progressivism, the stomping grounds of Joe McCarthy and, today, Paul Ryan. The funds and the volunteers that labor and the left mobilized for this campaign were matched by a torrent of money from the right. And on Tuesday, reactionary Wisconsin beat progressive Wisconsin by a nose.
The contest and its outcome calls to mind Ohio during the 2004 presidential race. Of all the states that campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry contested, Ohio saw the greatest investment from both sides. With funding from unions and such individual donors as George Soros, the Democrats waged a massive voter identification and mobilization effort that was, however, ultimately outmatched by the Bush campaign's extraordinary mobilization of conservative Christians. Each side pulled their base; the GOP just had a little more base to draw from. As it did yesterday in Wisconsin.
What, then, do the results augur for the Democrats' prospects in Wisconsin next year? Clearly, Walker's war on the state's social contract hasn't pushed Wisconsin toward an across-the-board repudiation of the Republican right. Neither, however, do the results mean that Barack Obama and the Democratic senators and, possibly, gubernatorial candidates (who might be former Senator Russ Feingold and former Congressman Dave Obey) should feel discouraged about their chances. Democrats didn't sweep GOP turf last night, but they mounted the kind of campaign that should do at least as well next year in Republican areas and turn out large numbers of Democrats in the left-leaning parts of the state. The key for the Democrats will be their ability to not only turn out their base but limit their losses within the state's disproportionately large white working class, a bastion of Democratic support in the days when its members worked in the hundreds of unionized factories that once anchored town after town. The factories, the unions, the jobs, and, in some places, the towns are largely gone now, as is the Democratic tilt of the state's white working-class voters. Obama's only hope for retaining some of these voters next year is to preside over an economic recovery or, that failing, at least to sketch a plausible vision of how good jobs can return to the post-industrial Midwest. The odds that either or both of these will happen aren't high, which is why Wisconsin, like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, will be among the most hotly contested states in next year's election.
If Democrats walk away from Tuesday dejected but still in the game, labor is left licking its wounds yet again. Twice in the past two years, it has responded to existential perils by going to the voters for redress, and twice it has lost. In 2010, labor primaried Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, who had opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions without fear of being fired. Despite a massive investment of labor resources, Lincoln hung on to narrowly win her primary, only to be swept away by the Republican tide last November. Now, in Wisconsin, labor was compelled to challenge Walker's war on unions at the ballot box, and it has come up short again. Labor still has one more big test coming in November, when Ohio voters will go to the polls to vote on a referendum that would repeal yet another new law prohibiting public employees from bargaining collectively, this one the handiwork of Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich.
The question for labor is whether it has entered an electoral downward spiral -- as its numbers have diminished, the number of union members it gets to the polls has shrunk, giving Republicans an electoral advantage that, in Wisconsin and Ohio this year, they exploited to pass laws shrinking unions still further. This shrinkage in numbers and electoral clout has led both the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to invest heavily in door-to-door canvassing and mobilization among nonmembers -- the AFL-CIO in white working-class neighborhoods, the SEIU in black and Latino communities -- in the hope that this expanded reach will improve their chances for electoral victories. While the AFL-CIO's program helped the Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, it was unable to stem the anti-Obama tide in 2010 and failed to put the Democrats over the top in Wisconsin yesterday. (SEIU's program began just a few months ago.)
A number of Obama's political strategists privately discount labor's political efforts, but they'll need them next year as never before. In a number of states (California especially), labor is still the most effective mobilizer of Latino voters. In going door to door in white working-class neighborhoods, labor's canvassers are setting foot where the Obama operatives increasingly fear to tread. Obama, and liberalism generally, can't prevail absent a vibrant labor movement. Which is another reason yesterday's results in Wisconsin are sobering.