In Tuesday's elections Democrats and organized labor failed to take the three seats necessary to take back control of the Wisconsin State Senate. Had they been successful at taking back the State Senate, that would have given Progressive forces an enormous shot of adrenaline and self-confidence. But even though they fell short of achieving that goal, Progressives in Wisconsin did take considerable political ground in the ongoing war over the future direction of American politics - and the fate of the middle class.
Six facts to remember when evaluating Tuesday's results:
Fact #1: Tuesday's election was not played out on a statewide battlefield, it was fought entirely on heavily Republican ground. Even so, Democrats took control of two Republican strongholds and came within a hair's breadth of winning a third.
Under Wisconsin law, Democrats couldn't recall Republican Senators who took swing districts in 2010's wave election. Nor could they recall Scott Walker, the Republican governor whose lightning strike against collective bargaining set off this war last winter. The law requires that to be recalled an officeholder had to be in office at least a year.
That requirement limited the battlefield to heavily Republican Senate districts. After last night, Democrats now hold two new seats deep in the heart of red territory.
Fact #2: The campaign allowed Democrats to concentrate massive amounts of resources and attention on Senate districts that are not normally their focus in typical general elections. As a result, they created strong new organizations in Republican sections of the state where none existed before.
In a typical General Election, political parties focus their effort in districts with swing seats, or where there are large concentrations of base voters who must be mobilized to support statewide contests. That means that they tend to develop the strongest political organizations in swing and base districts. In the recall elections, Democrats have instead concentrated heavily on creating strong field operations in the heart of Republican territory. Those new organizations will pay big dividends in next year's General Election -- dividends that could have decisive consequences in both the state's own elections -- and Democratic attempts to take back the House, hold the Senate and keep the Presidency. The road to control Congress and the White House runs right through Wisconsin in 2012.
Fact #3: There is an important rule in politics that is critical to remember as we evaluate what happened in Wisconsin last night: It is much easier to act yourself into a belief or commitment than it is to be persuaded by argument. Thousands of new volunteers -- some former Republicans -- have acted themselves into strong commitments to the progressive cause.
From what I'm told, some of those new volunteers will be discouraged because the Democrats failed to capture three Senate seats. But many have been infected by the political virus and will be back in action next year, determined to achieve final victory. They are invested.
Once all of the volunteers who worked so hard to win over the last few months get a chance to catch their breath, most will be ready to go back to work to deliver the coup de grace to the right wing Republican agenda in Wisconsin. Darth Vader himself -- Scott Walker -- will potentially be subject to recall in the General Election and will inspire enormous energy in the Democratic base.
Fact #4: As in any form of combat, politics is all about momentum -- about who is on the offensive. For the last five months the recall campaign has put Republicans on the defensive. Long-time Republicans were forced to defend their seats -- and their positions. Democrats have inspired their base and have mobilized to take Republican territory.
Tuesday, Republicans lost ground on their own turf. Next year the battlefield will shift to much more favorable territory and will be played out statewide. Between now and then, it is critical to keep the Republicans on defense. The first step, of course, is to make certain that the Democrats who were subject to Republican recall successfully retain their seats in the final series of recall elections next week.
And across the country, the forces that took ground in Wisconsin can't let up. In Ohio, the entire state is the battlefield in November when the vote will be held on the citizen veto referendum that would nullify Ohio's version of union-stripping legislation.
Fact #5: The battle of Wisconsin has transformed the public's view of organized labor. For many it is no longer just an institution that fights for wages or working conditions alone -- it is once again a movement that is fighting for the future of America's middle class -- a movement that is fighting for the rights of everyday people to have control of their future. As the iconic AFSCME banner read: "It's About Freedom."
Fact #6: It was absolutely critical that the labor movement and Democrats stood up to fight Scott Walker's brazen attack on the collective bargaining rights of middle class state workers and teachers in Wisconsin. Americans have been inspired by the sight of everyday working people standing up straight to defend themselves and the American middle class. After all, people follow strong leaders -- not victims.
The Republicans had to be made to pay a price. So far that price may not be as high as we had hoped, but don't doubt that it has been high.
Politicians are heavily driven by fear. One of the reasons the Tea Party has such power in the Congressional Republican Caucus is that Members fear being primaried from the Right. Well now, many Republicans in Wisconsin -- and around the country -- fear the backlash that comes when they attack the collective bargaining rights of working people -- and that is critical if we are to stem the tide of attacks on organized labor.
No politician likes to go through what the Republican Senators have gone through in the last five months -- especially, of course, those who lost.
In summary, Progressives took a lot of ground in the first two years of the Obama Administration -- then the Empire struck back. Right now we are all trying to hold as much ground as possible while we organize a massive counter offensive that can win in 2012.
I believe that the battle of Wisconsin was the first engagement of the war that will culminate in major Progressive victories in 2012.
Let us pay tribute to the thousands of everyday people who have worked so hard to defend working people and the American middle class in Wisconsin over the last five months -- and to the labor organizations that have devoted so much to the battle.
All of the kids in the next generation, who will still have a shot at the American dream because of what they have done, will look back on those volunteers as heroes who have helped blaze the trail to a future that is not about austerity or diminished expectations but possibility and hope.
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