Wisconsin Movement Tested By Failure To Retake State Senate

The progressive movement that emerged with force across Wisconsin when Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill (now law) in February that severely curtails collective bargaining rights faced a setback on Tuesday when, despite successfully recalling two Republican state senators, Democrats failed to pick up a third seat and thus take control of the chamber. Interviews with activists local and national suggest they will press on with their efforts, which in the short term means defending two Democrats up for recall next week and, eventually, mounting a full-scale drive to recall Mr. Walker himself.

“We’re clearly disappointed that we didn’t win three recalls last [Tuesday] night. And we’re not gonna sugarcoat that. But we also believe we made a lot of progress and that this grassroots movement was able to win two seats in Republican districts was pretty historic and sends a strong message to the GOP: Working families are rejecting their agenda. The wins that we did have are signs that the tide is turning,” said Levana Layendecker, communications director for Democracy for America, one of the national groups most active in the fight.

“We won two seats, we’re gaining traction. I’d rather be in our position than theirs. I think the larger piece of this is still very important: We received overwhelming support from our membership, we energized folks in Wisconsin to stand up to the far-right. I think that’s something to be proud about. If progressives can win in GOP districts, Walker is in serious trouble. Right now we’re focused on protecting those Democratic state senators,” added Randy Borntrager, political director for People For the American Way.

Some activists fretted that Walker and Republicans would interpret the failure of Democrats to take control of the Senate as a mandate to press ahead with their divisive agenda.

“I think they’re going to take this as vindication and push through a bunch of right-wing initiatives this fall,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

Kraig also acknowledged the movement might have set the bar too high for itself in hoping to seize control of the Senate in Republican territory.

“We were operating in six districts that went Republican in 2008 [when Obama won the state easily]. There is a danger of people being demoralized. We’re seeing a lot of strong statements about pressing ahead. This remains to be seen. The next test is next week so it’s not as if people can stop. This [setback] is a test of the movement.”

Ben Manski, executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation and a spokesman for the umbrella group Wisconsin Wave, said the issues were too important and the stakes too high for the movement’s energy to abate.

“It can be lost on those trying to understand from afar what’s happening here: the reality is that this is a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin families and it is also a matter of a way of life that Wisconsin has long been proud of being threatened. Wisconsin has never followed the economic model of Arkansas or Indiana and that’s why people are not going to go away. You’ve seen suicides around the state from teachers and other people in the public sector.”

For now, then, the fight goes on. But whether the energy and enthusiasm will still be there when Walker is eligible for recall next year remains unclear.

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