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Tuesday night was a brutal, brutal night for progressives in Wisconsin.
I was stuck in a local TV studio watching the dismal returns roll in, and it felt like someone was kicking me in the teeth over and over again.
After a historic uprising in February and March of 2011, after months and months of organizing for this recall, when all is said and done, Scott Walker remains governor of Wisconsin.
He even won by a bigger margin this time than last. In 2010, he beat Tom Barrett 52-47 percent, with a 125,000-vote surplus. This time, he beat Barrett 53-46, with a 173,000-vote surplus. Walker got 202,000 more votes than last time; Barrett got 154,000 more than last time, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly.
Here are some of the reasons why Walker won.
Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can buy you power. Walker raised seven-to-ten times as much money as Barrett did. The governor collected six-figure checks from a rogue’s gallery of the far right: Bob Perry of Swift Boat infamy gave $500,000. Sheldon Adelson gave $250,000, Richard Devos gave $250,000, Foster Friess gave $100,000.
A wrinkle in Wisconsin campaign finance laws, which allows for unlimited contributions to a candidate between the time recall papers are filed and the day that the election formally gets scheduled, gave Walker four and a half months to sit on the lap of every rightwing roofer in Missouri (two of whom gave him $250,000 checks), every conservative Wall Street financier, every reactionary Texas oilman that he could find.
On top of that, the Koch Brothers poured in millions through their front groups, and the RNC funneled money in, as did other Republican organizations.
Few commentators have noticed that Walker essentially won the election from mid-November to the end of March, when he had absolute air supremacy. In early November, he had a negative approval rating of 58 percent. By June, his positive approval rating was 51 or 52 percent. He flipped these numbers around by running ads on the airwaves all winter long, from Thanksgiving through the Super Bowl and right up to the Democratic primaries. Even on the night of those primaries, he was on the air bashing Tom Barrett.
And in the last month, Walker’s ads were everywhere, all over the TV and even on progressive radio stations.
2. The DNC and White House went AWOL.
The rightwing moneymen and the Republican Party understood the importance of the election. The Koch Brothers saw it as an opportunity to score a decisive blow against organized labor. “What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important,” David Koch said in February. “If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.” And Reince Preibus, head of the RNC, said, “Anything Scott Walker needs from the RNC, Scott Walker’s going to get from the RNC.”
By contrast, the DNC was stingy, and Barack Obama couldn’t find Wisconsin with GPS and a flashlight. Hell, he was in Minneapolis on Friday and didn’t even bother to drive across the Mississippi to set foot in Wisconsin. He never showed up. Neither did Joe Biden. All Obama did was send a tweet on election morning. How pathetic!
Tom Barrett was hung out to dry. The only high-profile person from out of state who campaigned hard for him was Tom Morello.
3. Recall was unpopular
In the exit polls, 60 percent of Wisconsin voters said recall should be used only for “misconduct” in office, and not for other reasons. The statute doesn’t specify under what circumstances an elected official can be recalled. Back in 1910, Fighting Bob La Follette said recall should be used when an elected official is guilty of “misrepresentation and betrayal,” which Walker certainly was. He never told the citizenry in 2010 that he was going to “drop a bomb” on organized labor or “divide and conquer.” He never told the citizenry that he was going to gouge public education by $1.6 billion, or make it more difficult to vote, or wage a war on women, or despoil the environment. But that’s what he did.
Yet many voters were uncomfortable with kicking him out for this. I spoke with voters in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, last Friday and some of them disagreed with Walker on a few of these policies but didn’t believe he should be recalled because of them. This sentiment turned out to be a common one.
4. Walker was a strong candidate
As much as I can’t stand the man, Walker proved to be a formidable candidate. He stayed on message. He was a pesky debater. He was unflappable. He cultivated a down-to-earth image with his jacket off and his shirtsleeves rolled up and his aw-shucks demeanor. And he said two plus two equals five with a straight face and basset eyes. Even as he had the worst jobs record of any governor in the country, he talked about how great he was creating jobs, and when the numbers weren’t in his favor, he wheeled out different numbers. Brazen, yes, but it worked.
Tom Barrett, for his part, ran a much more caffeinated campaign than last time, and he acquitted himself well in the debates. In defeat, he was gracious, as he is in every circumstance. He can hold his head up high.
But this was never about Tom Barrett, as my colleague Ruth Conniff noted yesterday.
It was always about standing up for labor rights, public education, women’s rights, the social safety net, and the environment. It was about standing up for the idea of a decent community. It was about defending the progressive tradition of Wisconsin.
My heart goes out to all the new activists over the last 16 months who shouted their lungs out, who paraded around the capitol square in Madison in the freezing cold last February and March and did so with joy, with creativity, with ingenuity, with inventiveness, with playfulness.
My heart goes out to all those who sat in at the capitol in a historic two-week occupation, and who handled themselves with dignity.
My heart goes out to the 30,000 petition circulators who gathered a million signatures in the dead of winter in every county of Wisconsin.
My heart goes out to the Solidarity Singers, who, every single working day for the past sixteen months, have been in the capitol at noon defiantly and amusingly and creatively giving voice to all of us who have a vision of a more humane state.
Do not give up. Progress is not linear. It doesn’t come in a day, or a month, or a year, or in a single campaign. But it comes.
We’ve survived huge setbacks before. Young Bob La Follette, who took over for his father in the U.S. Senate and had a distinguished two-decade career there, lost in a primary in 1946 to a fellow named Joe McCarthy. That, too, was a brutal night for Wisconsin.
But we survived McCarthyism. And we will survive Walkerism.
If this election proves anything, though, it proves the need for campaign finance reform. We must get money out of politics or we will have no hope for real democracy in Wisconsin or in America.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Wisconsin gubernatorial recall race is historic."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter