In The News
Recall failures delude GOP into inflating numbers
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted Aug. 10, 2011
My news lede kept changing Aug. 9 as I pursued the election returns. It started out suggesting the progressive forces were being “dinged a bit” as they clearly lost the expected two out of six recalls. That lead-in turned into “hanging by a thread” when they lost the Fred Clark-Luther Olsen contest (in a district that has breathed GOP and seemed poised to change). Then the lede became “no flip” as the Democrats had to absorb the pain that the senate would stay at least one vote in GOP hands. And the paragraph could have concluded with Rep. Sandy Pasch’s quiet concession statement late in the night after having clearly lost to incumbent Alberta Darling in Senate District 8, that whatever the victory for the voices of the people "we fell short of our desired result.”
Oh yes, the pundits say that both sides came away with something but what the progressives really wanted was to turn the Senate blue and on Aug. 9 they didn’t.
It was no surprise that GOP incumbent Rob Cowles won over Nancy Nusbaum in a strong GOP district and that Sheila Harsdorf could beat back political novice Shelly Moore (a teacher who may have set a powerful ground game for a 2012 comeback). And it was a big deal to put popular Rep. Jennifer Shilling in the Senate rather than Dan Kapanke, but that was a race the Democrats expected to win. It was certainly a success that Jessica King, though underperforming given the circumstances, still comfortably beat the self-impaling Randy Hopper, he of the domestic revelations and blatant favoritism to special interests.
But the crown jewel of these expensive contests, Darling in Milwaukee area District 8, eluded the Democrats even when, against the odds, the energy looked in their favor. On late-night TV Alberta was determined to rub salt into the wounds with constant crowing and cackling -- not just a victory lap but a vulture-like circling of the TV cameras.
The reason for the results was not, as she and Republican talk radio kept bloviating, that the “silent majority” had spoken up. They should just boast that the secret third-party money and constant chest-pounding had paid off. Checks, ground game and distortion had been given time to stir up the conservative voters and the unsuspecting fundamentalists.
The successful GOP strategy had it roots in July 16. But more of that in a moment. First, let’s be honest about what the results show. Hardly a runaway endorsement for Gov. Walker, but clearly not a victory for the Democrats and unions, whatever the spin.
The new GOP talking points myth on FOX and wherever they’ve paid to appear is that these far-flung district elections (about a sixth of the state senate) proves that most of the state stands behind Walker.
Yet simple numbers say otherwise.
In the six recalls Aug. 9, about 347,457 votes were cast – in a state with an election age population of more than 4 million. We are talking about less than one-seventh of the 2.2 million who voted in 2010 for governor. And when you clear away the smoke, the split was 165,129 for Democrat candidates and 184,328 for Republicans, less than a 20,000 vote difference -- on Republican turf!
Granted, the Democrats won in a district that seems to be trending Democrat (Shilling) and one that is swingy (King), but this is still evidence of a remarkable balance in the state that any number of events can tilt in either direction. Even the appalling contorted redistricting for 2012 the GOP has pushed forward in the face of federal court challenges may not make as much of a difference as events and economic fortunes will.
So Walker is not out of the recall woods, though that becomes an issue of timing, strategy and his ongoing behavior. Will he try to pound through bills some well-heeled supporters want, such as the death penalty, abstinence-only laws or expanded vouchers? Any such steps could ignite new flames.
Robert Kraig of Citizen Action of Wisconsin may have had it right when he said election night that these recalls may simply be the opening skirmish in a long battle. While many Democrats hoped to gulp victory in one drink, the financial power and political “anything to win” strategy on the other side beat them back this time around. Yet anyone who expects progressives to scurry into a corner and lick their wounds doesn’t understand unions -- even when or especially when their very existence is threatened. “We know how to lose and come back stronger,” said Sheila Cochran, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. Agreed another union member: “The ruling class has forced us to do that again and again.”
Still, all the power and energy didn’t pull off a miracle Aug. 9. Why? In my analysis, it was the desperate, canny but ugly trick the Republicans pulled when they turned all six contests scheduled for July 16 into Democrat primaries, fielding “fake Dems” not to win but to simply stall the final showdown.
Even Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, admitted Aug. 9 that he had “heartburn” agreeing to the idea and encouraging Republicans to lie that they were Democrats and cross over to vote. (Anything that gives Fitzgerald heartburn has to be darn acid stuff.)
Most people, even the media, found the concept more amusing than outrageous, even though deliberate lying cost the taxpayers about $500,000 in useless elections. Some Democrats actually thought a month delay would give them more time to make their case about the dangers in Gov. Walker’s bull rush budget. So genuine outrage never materialized.
In truth, the GOP had been caught flat-footed and the extra month allowed the full weight of the power games their side commanded.
Game One: Money. Those who just listen to the media reports might think the unions had as much third-party money to play with as the GOP side. No, they had enough to compete well, combining union and progressive forces in We Are Wisconsin and other players, but the maybe $12 million – virtually all disclosed – obviously pales compared to the undisclosed advertising dollars that third-party right-wing networks flooded in – some $20 million (according to independent watchdogs) from outfits like Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads, American Federation of Children, etc. Since the Republicans could pay for TV and also pay for grassroots, it was clobber time not possible in July.
Game Two: Fiscal Pretense. Only the gullible would believe that a budget passed in June would really have any job benefits or fiscal impact by August 9, but the GOP pounded this in media and ads and the public bought it. Could we be real for a second? All these figures are projections, estimates. That much condemned $3.6 billion state deficit, half the size of past deficits and in the middle of the pack among states, may have already shrunk half a million from new revenue. Or it could rise if the economy swoons. Revenues change state deficits, and Walker’s much talked-about tools and fixes are limited and doubly short-sighted since he sits on increasing revenue even through such means as combined reporting or sensible collection of delinquent debts. But if the media doesn’t pound on this, the GOP chatter helping the media profit can fabricate the other way. And they did without correction.
Game Two and Half: We Balanced the Budget. Darling was big on this fiscal pretense. Pasch didn’t score points with a bottom-line public by pointing out the obvious: Anyone can balance a budget if you don’t care who you hurt.
Use your family as an example. Take any child at age 18 and don’t help with a car, tuition, health care, and you would be amazed what you can legally save. Send granny packing, stop giving to the United Way, put to one side the debtors who won’t sue and presto, you can still go out and party and say you balanced your budget.
The progressives argued that this is what Walker and Darling were doing. The voters, blinded by the thought of being in the black not the red or perhaps angry that the choices they agreed to in regular 2010 elections were being questioned, never understood. The interviews suggest that there were Republicans who could no longer vote for Darling but they were replaced by Republicans who assumed that a “balanced budget” reflected moral tough love, neglecting how many breaks to the rich, the lobbyists and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) were snuck into the budget bill. Ignorant they may be, but they still voted.
Game Three: Keep Saying It’s Working. That extra month allowed municipalities and school districts controlled by Republicans to come in with reports impossible to swallow in July, of how much Walker’s attack on bargaining rights would benefit communities. That’s only the stuff the unions had readily agreed to (higher payments in health premiums, direct 5.5% to pensions). The other factors are just punishment of unions to make them spend money defending their very existence instead of fighting right-wing non-union policies. These are factors that could well cost taxpayers more money rather than save any.
Pro-life right-wingers were accepting figures that in most cases were an abortion. This two-year budget, many economists agree, will leave most school districts and municipalities bailing out from enormous debt by 2013. Yet most of the “it’s working” figures are projections based on 2011-2012 school year. The gestation period has been cut in half. And all these baby figures could die by mid-2012.
These are games the GOP could not have played without that extra month. I’m not alone in the suspicion that if the final races had been held in July, the Republicans would have lost four of six races rather than keeping four of six.
Let’s concede what is in front of us, that however nasty and heartburn inducing the road to Aug. 9 was, the Republicans proved they will do anything to win. If they had lost, we would still be facing demands for recounts and scrambles to pass bills before the Democrats gain power.
Of course, money remains a key to the future on both sides. But I think the Democrats will now be forced to change their ground game, which has largely been stirring up the forces on their own side and bolstering the wobbly. The ground troops will have to learn to talk to the people who dislike them or even distrust them, to look like them, speak their language and couch their ideas in basic terms that disinterested citizens, fierce independents and even traditional Republicans can understand.
Looking at what happened, it’s fine to preach to the choir, but it’s also time to expand the ministry. “If we have good arguments and we do,” one union leader told me, “we now have to learn how to talk intelligently to the people who start out hating us.”