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Wisconsin Democrats Score Two More Recall Wins as Voters Reject a GOP Governor's Anti-Labor Agenda

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Here's some perspective:

1. Wisconsin has had held more high-stakes recall elections in a brief period than any state at any time in American history. Six Democratic challenges to Republican senators who sided with Governor Walker were mounted, along with three Republican challenges to the Democratic senators who left the state to block Walker's agenda in February and March. The nine districts where recall elections have played out since July 12 have been urban, rural and suburban. In a very real sense, the pattern of recalls has provided a statewide referendum on the popularity of Governor Walker's policies.

2. All of the elections took place in state Senate districts that Republicans controlled or where Republicans chose to force recall elections. At the start of the process, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald claimed that his party would pick up seats in the Senate. Democrats hoped to shift control of the Senate. Neither side achieved their goal, but Democrats came closer to getting there. While two members of Fitzgerald's Republican caucus were defeated last week -- western Wisconsin Republican Dan Kapanke lost to Democrat Jennifer Shilling and eastern Wisconsin Republican Randy Hopper lost to Democrat Jess King -- none of the three targeted Democrats (Holperin, Wirch and Green Bay Senator Dave Hansen, who won his recall race last month) were defeated.

3. Democrats won the overall majority of recall elections, with five victories to four for the Republicans.

4. Democrats won the overall majority of votes cast in the nine districts, with roughly 243,000 votes statewide to 239,000 for the Republicans. That's a narrow margin but remember that Governor Walker won these districts in 2010, and that Republican Senate candidates easily won six of them in 2008.

5. Republicans went into the recall fight with a comfortable 19-14 majority in the Senate. They finish it with a bare 17-16 advantage. But that does not tell the whole story, as one of the 17 Republicans is Schultz, the Wisconsin maverick who has broken with the governor and his party on key issues. A southwestern Wisconsinite who served Senate majority leader in 2004, Schultz has been a legislature since 1983.

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6. The great battle of the winter and spring was over collective-bargaining rights. When the state Senate finally took up the issue, the Democratic senators were absent. But the governor's proposal to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of most collective bargaining protections did not pass unanimously. Schultz voted "no." He has continued to be highly critical of the governor and extreme elements of the GOP agenda. He has talked up the need for bipartisanship and moderate approaches, and he recently toured the southern part of the state with Senator Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat, to promote cooperation.

7. Schultz will remain a Republican, but his willingness to cooperate with the Democrats increases the prospect that Governor Walker will have to moderate his approach. Here is the best way to understand things: If the Democrats had had 16 senators in March, those 16 and maverick Republican Schultz could have blocked the governor's assault on collective-bargaining rights. The collective-bargaining issue might be revisited by the legislature, as the measure that was passed in March faces multiple legal challenges and could yet be blocked by the courts. Additionally, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans (including Schultz and, perhaps, several other relative moderates, led by Senate President Mike Ellis) could block other conservative proposals, such as an anti-labor "right-to-work" law or proposals for school privatization. Additionally, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, "the narrower majority would make it tougher to win approval of controversial legislation, such as stricter abortion restrictions or tougher penalties for illegal immigrants."

9. While Republicans and their allies tried to claim victory last week, the party and interest-groups that tend to support its candidates spent heavily on the final two recalls, hoping to displace Holperin or Wirch. They knew that they could claim a clear victory only if they displaced at least one Democrat. That did not happen.

10. One final note for perspective. In addition to the recalls, Wisconsin had one other competitive state legislative election this year: a May contest to fill the state Assembly seat of Republican Mike Huebsch, who left the legislature to become Governor Walker's chief appointee (as secretary of the state Department of Administration). The western Wisconsin seat, representing a traditionally Republican district that Huebsch held with little serious opposition for 16 years, was won after an intense contest by a Democrat. Factor this in and Wisconsin Democrats have, since May, flipped three GOP legislative seats. Republicans have flipped no Democratic seats.

So it is that, for all the talk of Republican "wins" this year, the reality is that the Democrats have the far better record of winning competitive races. That's a significant shift from 2010, when the Republicans had the advantage. And it has Democrats in Wisconsin and across the country celebrating. Late Tuesday, after it was clear that Holperin and Wirch had won by comfortable margins, Michael Sargeant, the executive director of the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee declared: "This is an epic victory in the battle to loosen the Republican stranglehold on Wisconsin state government. Tonight's Democratic wins are not only part of a broad rebuke of the Wisconsin GOP's out-of-touch, anti-middle class agenda, but also a warning shot in the ongoing fight against right-wing extremism in states across the country."

Cross-posted from The Nation
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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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