Providence, R.I. -- Fresh off their bruising defeat in Wisconsin's recall election on Tuesday, grassroots activists blamed the buckets of money that conservative donors spent to keep Gov. Scott Walker in office for their loss and decried the Democratic Party for turning a people-powered movement into a traditional partisan electoral coalition.
At times their discussion on Friday at the liberal Netroots Nation conference, billed as a "post-mortem," slipped into nostalgia for the occupation of the state capitol last year. One activist even went so far as to claim the election was a victory for the labor-Democratic coalition given that they have apparently gained a majority in the state Senate. But all acknowledged that Walker's win would embolden the anti-union politicians in other states.
"Scott Walker's billionaire backers have now successfully bought the state of Wisconsin," said Harry Waisbren, an organizer with the pro-labor, Occupy Wall Street-aligned group Job Party. "And very directly they're saying this is a model that's going to be followed in all 50 states."
Waisbren and others painted a picture of a popular social movement, which at one time saw more than 100,000 people swarming the state's capital opposing Gov. Scott Walker's proposed legislation prohibiting collective bargaining for most state employees' unions, that was perverted by the imperatives of Democratic Party operatives.
Rifts between the grassroots organizers represented at Netroots Nation and Barrett's Democratic backers began months before the election during the party's nomination battle. Barrett refused to promise to veto any budget bill that didn't restore collective bargaining rights. The friction deepened when he ran on a traditional Democratic Party platform.
"The reason the uprising worked, the reason we had this sustained occupation of the capitol building … was because it was of the people," said Emily Mills, editor of the Madison-area news site Dane101.com. "It wasn't the Democratic Party that said, Hey, we want you guys to take the capitol. It wasn't even the labor unions."
After the recall began, the movement "became much more polarized and partisan," she said.
"It became about elections. It became about parties. It became about one candidate that not everybody was enthusiastic about," she said.
"The narrative was lost," Waisbren said. "Tom Barrett specifically ran on not being a rock star of the far right or the rock star of the far left. He did not run within the broader movement of what was happening. He did not express how the occupation itself led to this new dynamic that we're seeing."
Aside from Barrett's weakness as a candidate, the panelists agreed, Scott Walker had one major advantage: money. Even before the Democratic Party had nominated a candidate, Walker's allies were pouring millions of dollars into his reelection. The governor eventually raised $30.5 million to Barrett's $3.9 million -- sums that don't include spending by third-party groups. Pro-Walker ads blanketed the airwaves.
"We see what 7-to-1 or 8-to-1 ratios in spending will do," said Josh Orton, political and communications director for former Sen. Russ Feingold's Progressives United group.
Political scientist Seth Masket of the University of Denver has challenged that narrative, noting that Walker's 7-point victory this year was barely above his 6-point win in 2010. If all that extra spending moved voters, the gap should have been wider, Masket argued.
But Wisconsin activists at the conference were sure that the money played a part, offering an alternative narrative that stressed the importance of Walker's approval ratings improving months before the election.
"[Walker's] numbers were much worse around the time of the uprising and for several months after that," Mills said. "The money that they poured in was able to get him back up to where he was in 2010. So he was able to crawl out of that hole and get back up to where he was, but he didn't get much further than that."
A November 2011 poll by St. Norbert College and Wisconsin Public Radio found that 58 percent of Wisconsinites would remove Walker from office if they could, bolstering her argument.
"The answer here is not to sort of fight dark money with dark money; it's to focus on the grasroots," Orton said.
Despite their crushing loss in the gubernatorial recall, the activists took solace in their apparent retaking of the majority in the state Senate.
"In the end we didn't actually really lose, we have the state Senate," said Kaili Lambe, who managed paid canvassing in the state for the labor coalition We Are Wisconsin and Democracy for America. "And for them, a win was the status quo, and we changed that. We have a stopgap. Walker can't just do what he wants; he has to come to the table."
Orton wasn't willing to go that far, calling the state Senate win a "technicality."
"I would be loath to say that what happend on Tuesday is a win," he said. But on the bright side, he argued, "what happened in Wisconsin shows nationally that you can't go after these historic middle-class protections without a fight."
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