At the end of the night of Wisconsin’s first round of recall elections, now some two weeks ago, liberal heads were hanging low. Democrats needed to take back three seats in order to regain control of the State Senate. That they would win two of those seats, those held by Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper, was all but given. Theirs were traditionally liberal districts that had voted for Obama in the 2008 presidential election but swung right in 2010. The constituencies in those districts included a large number of public and other unionized laborers, and Hopper’s disadvantage in this regard was only compounded by the news that upon arriving in Madison to undertake his legislative duties the freshman senator promptly shacked up with a 25-year-old Republican aide. Possibilities for winning back the critical third seat, though, were limited to District 8, which includes urban, suburban, and even more suburban (which is to say more insular and further from the actual city) areas of the Milwaukee metropolitan area, and happens as well to be my parents’ district.
In District 8, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin picked a very nice assemblywoman and former nurse by the name of Sandy Pasch to run against the incumbent Alberta Darling, a one-time educator who went on to work in marketing before going into government. The soft-spoken Pasch seemed to gain steam as the recall campaign went on. Her speeches grew more stirring, her demeanor more natural and generous, and her supporters, in turn, more hopeful of and invested in the possibility of victory. My parents spent weeks knocking on doors in the inner city sections of the district, believing—for such was the mantra inside the campaign—that if Democrats could turn out a meaningful percentage of the black vote it would be possible to offset the overwhelming support Darling was certain to enjoy in staunchly right-wing suburban counties like Waukesha, home of the election-changing adjusted vote counts in last spring’s bellwether State Supreme Court election.
When all was said and done, however, victory in the Eighth was not to be. In Waukesha and other conservative suburban counties—places where ballots are kept in ample supply and almost nobody has a problem getting to the polls—voter turnout was enormous, as was Darling’s advantage over Pasch: five thousand votes, give or take. My parents, meanwhile, keep talking about a girl they met who spent weeks canvassing a single inner city, predominantly black neighborhood, home to perhaps a thousand eligible voters. This was her territory. She was tireless and laser-focused in her work, my parents say, and in the end she succeeded in bringing out forty voters. Forty. My father called me late on election night from some quiet corner (probably not all that hard to find) at the Pasch victory party. “It turns out we never had a chance,” he said drearily. “The numbers just weren’t there.” The following morning, the local Milwaukee newspaper declared the recalls an all but unqualified victory for state Republicans and especially Governor Scott Walker—a victory by extension for Walker’s symbiotic passions of union-busting and privatizing every remaining shred of public services (these days more disparagingly referred to as “entitlements”).
But then this past Tuesday came Wisconsin’s second and final set of state senate recalls. In response to and apparent retaliation for the recall campaigns mounted against Republicans, the Wisconsin Republican Party, funded by big globs of money from the Koch Brothers’ infamous Americans For Prosperity foundation and other right-wing interest groups, managed to collect signatures sufficient to warrant elections to recall Democratic state senators Bob Wirch and Jim Holperin, among the fourteen who fled Wisconsin last winter in an effort to, by leaving the senate short of a quorum, prevent voting on (and, inevitably, passage of) the union-busting legislation by which our current governor’s legacy will inevitably be defined. In both elections, the incumbent Democrats defeated their Republican challengers easily, despite vociferous accusations of having “walked out on the job” and other such nonsense.
On balance, then, while Democrats did not take the three seats they’d been shooting for, and therefore did not regain control of the state senate, two Republican state senators were recalled—the first two such recalls in Wisconsin’s history—and zero Democratic state senators were recalled. Perhaps more importantly, the recall of the two Republican senators indicates a return to form in both of those traditionally left-leaning districts, and it seems to me that this leftward shift could well turn out to be consequential. Wisconsin has gone blue, as they say, in the last two presidential elections, but just barely—by the skin of its perennially progressive teeth. That makes it a swing state, according to the experts, and to have recaptured two districts that in recent years slipped away might well make a difference in whether Wisconsin goes red or blue in the upcoming presidential election, which in turn (such seems to be the basic premise of the swing state) just might make a difference, or even the difference, in how the country goes.
None of this, of course, is cause for unbridled optimism. These days we are all subjects of a politics of resentment: one in which the rather lifeless desire to see your nearest neighbors lose whatever real or perceived advantages they might hold over you seems more often than not to prevail over the far more demanding desire to work in solidarity with those neighbors to secure for as many as possible the kind of dignified life none should have to do without in a country that is home to unprecedented quantities of wealth. In such a climate, there is precious little space for hope. But perhaps it is also the case that we on the left are a little too good at losing. Losing brings out the fight in us. It gives us traction, and lends coherence—if only the coherence of shared failure—to the disparate grievances by which we are motivated. But if we really believe in what we’re fighting for—and here in Wisconsin I’d like to think that we do—now might be a good time to keep track of our victories as well.