Election evening began beautifully on the State Street side of Madison?s Square, facing the campus of the University of Wisconsin. Thousands gathered in the warm weather, only a minority aware that the Solidarity Sing Along savants had planned yet another session (the second of the day!), quickly running out of songbooks. Humming along with such tuneful favorites as ?Union Maid? and ?Solidarity Forever,? the crowd smiled, waved at their friends, and were doubtless happy at the diversity of the gathering. Not since last spring had there been such a mix of unionists, aging radicals, students hanging around past semester?s end (perhaps they were native Madisonians, returned for the summer), and families.
The news came through a whispering, about the time the crowd had begun to disperse toward the bars or home, and the Sing-alongers had moved from the book to Johnny Cash favorites ?May the Circle Be Unbroken? and ?I?ll Fly Away.?
We obviously needed religious?or any other available?consolation. Through the day, record poll numbers in Madison, and reports of a surge in northern Milwaukee (African-American) wards had boosted hopes. Reality sunk in suddenly, too suddenly for useful analysis. By midnight, not only had Scott Walker turned back the recall by an unanticipated margin, it seemed the Republicans had swept the field. Only later did it become clear that one of their state senators, in Racine, had apparently been knocked off, albeit by less than a thousand votes, and Democrats now held a majority in the upper legislative chamber.
Come the next morning, the blame narrative began (except among grumpy Marxists who had, as expected, started almost before the polls opened) on the talk shows. John Nichols observed keenly that Democratic candidate Tom Barrett possessed no appeal in the western, normally Democratic parts of the state around La Crosse, and likewise made no appeal in rural areas, no real effort to speak to the multiple crises facing small-town life. In his third try for governor, Barrett had never moved beyond his reputation as a mediocre administrator, a ?Milwaukee candidate??by contrast to, say, a second runner-up for the nomination, farmer and erstwhile ag professor Kathleen Vinehout, or Dane County?s Kathleen Falk, his nearest opponent.
Progressive magazine political editor Ruth Conniff offered up a morning-after observation vital beyond the borders of Wisconsin, not only for the moment but for years to come. The recall petition-gathering, a vast grassroots operation with thousands of political novices throwing themselves into efforts across the state, had a poor successor in the electoral phase, which was top-down in almost every respect. The momentum of a mass-democratic mobilization of a character unknown since the days of Bob LaFollette disappeared into competing television ads, with Democrats outspent seven-to-one. What had been spectacular become ordinary, and Barrett?s personal blandness, his eagerness to confine the issue to the supposed end of divisiveness, looked like a bad fit. In contrast to Walker?s scary vision of Wisconsin?s future, Barrett had no particular vision he was willing to disclose.
To be fair, the occupation of the Capitol and the massive Spring 2011 demonstrations had taken state Democrats by surprise, even if the heroic departure of fourteen Senators in February had opened up political space for the ?uprising.? State party chair Mike Tate and his crew had raced to catch up, supplying much logistical assistance to the recall campaign of that summer, which knocked out two Republican state senators, and again through the fall. A handful of leading party figures including Fred Risser?at eighty-five, he has held state office longer than anyone else in the country?spoke well and often as the process went along. Charitably seen, the party then fell back into routine, trapped by the nomination process as much as by the vast quantities of outside money to Walker.
Not everyone, not even enthusiasts whose hard work drove the campaigns, was so charitable. Lori Compas, the Fort Atkinson weekend wedding photographer who ran unsuccessfully to recall senate leader Scott Fitzgerald, had been discouraged from running by party officials but gathered hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in small donations. She occasionally mentioned that she had never been a Democrat, and hinted that she looked to the formation of a progressive party (a thought voiced almost daily in the Sing-alongers? ?I Don?t Want Your Millions, Mister,? with the lines, ?Take your two old parties, mister/No difference ?tween them I can see/But with a real progressive party/ We could set the people free.? Historians will note the departure from the Pete Seeger version, with ?a farmer-labor party? as the goal).
Post-election, Democrat or not, Compas looked a lot like the face of a new kind of mobilization from below. And the question most heard was, naturally, whether Obama could build on that kind of enthusiasm in the fall campaign for Wisconsin (where he stills leads Romney, in polls, by a few points), renewing the energy that brought him the decisive votes here in 2008, or whether the campaign would stall in the futile pursuit of television-ad persuasion.
(For more on the recall, I highly recommended Matt Rothschild?s ?A Brutal Night in Wisconsin,? at the Progressive‘s blog.)