MADISON — It was supposed to be a celebration.
But it’s hard to throw a party with a casket in the room.
That’s the feeling, it seems, permeating among Wisconsin Democrats in the days after their party took a beating at the polls in the state’s unprecedented recall election.
Vicki Burke, chairwoman of the La Crosse County Democratic Party, said Dems are trying to shake off the stunned sensation they felt election night, when word quickly came down that Republican Gov. Scott Walker had defeated Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
“It was just sadness, overwhelming sadness,” Burke said, blaming the defeat on record campaign fundraising and spending by Walker and the groups that support him.
Walker ended up winning by 7 percentage points, slightly better than his performance in the 2010 gubernatorial election, where he beat Barrett for the first time.
It was a big night for the GOP, pushing back attempts to oust Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and three Republican senators. A fourth race, in the 21st Senate District, appears to have gone to John Lehman, the Democratic challenger from Racine, but incumbent Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard has yet to concede, waiting on next week’s canvassing of the extremely close rate before he makes his next move.
Just before boarding a Detroit-bound flight Thursday morning, former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who took a lot of blame from Republicans in the recall campaign for troubles in the economy, told Wisconsin Reporter he has stayed out of the political fight. And he has — at least publicly.
“I’m not the commentator,” Doyle said, offering that the results were a “total replay of what happened in 2010.”
Come Friday, when Democrats meet in Appleton for their state party convention, it may be hard to fight the feeling of a political wake.
“There is a bit of that,” acknowledged Jane Witt, chairwoman of the Racine County Democratic Party. “But there’s an element of celebration of what we did accomplish and the things we did learn, and, of course, we’ll all be there to console each other.”
Witt said there’s plenty of fatigue from many in a campaign that has spent the better part of the past six months pushing the recall drive, expending untold emotional capital.
Fight goes on
But Dems have no time to rest on their disappointments, because Republicans have no intention of resting on their laurels.
While a win in the 21st gives Democrats control of the state Senate by a narrow 17-16 margin, the victory means relatively little in the Legislature’s mostly idle season.
And Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, said CERS has its eyes son at least four vulnerable Democratic seats.
Republican strategist Mark Graul agreed.
“Republicans have a great opportunity to recapture control of the Senate in November,” he said, pointing first and foremost the 12th Senate District, opening up with the retirement of state Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover.
Graul predicts, with the big win by Republicans in the recall charge, the GOP will hold serve on its Senate seats up for election.
“I don’t see any situation whereby the Democrats can defeat (an incumbent) Republican senator this coming November,” the strategist said.
Democrats, too, say they are gearing up for the fall election, with plenty of solid candidates of their own. And they have their eye on a wider prize, the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by long-serving U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, a Milwaukee Democrat.
Witt said Dems still are fired up about their candidate, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-District 2, set to run against one of four GOP heavyweights, including former Gov. Tommy Thompson, in the November election.
“We’re not just lying down dying at this point,” Witt said
But this week, in the heat of loss, there’s a fair amount of finger-pointing going on, and, at home as well as nationally, no shortage of I-told-you-sos among Democrats.
Regrouping from a ‘dumb political fight’
While Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Mike Tate called the recall campaign a “fight worth fighting,” other prominent Democrats argued Tate and friends picked the wrong fight.
“It was a dumb political fight — I would have waited until Walker’s re-election,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told The Hill.
Exit polls showed that about a quarter of those who voted thought a recall was appropriate for any reason, reported Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say there was a substantial anti-recall faction that played a big part Tuesday,” Wisconsin state Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, told the Appleton Post Crescent. “This is something we will have to think about going forward, how the state handles recalls, especially the part that allows incumbents to raise unlimited amounts of money.”
While hindsight is 20/20, a chorus of voices, from politicians to national organized labor, has been critical of Wisconsin’s recall drive, arguing it would have been better to wait to take on Walker in 2014.
With a tough presidential election coming up, perhaps the most telling Democratic disinterest in the recall movement came in President Barack Obama’s, who did not make a single campaign appearance in the Badger State during the recall campaign.
Maria Cardona, a national Democratic strategist and principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm, said she’s not going to make any judgments.
“I don’t like to say that it was a mistake because this was something that was an egregious act that the public employees of Wisconsin thought they needed to do something about,” Cardona said of Act 10, the law, pushed by Walker, which stripped collective bargaining for most public employees in the state.
Now, Wisconsin Democrats have to regroup and, pundits assert, find a way to regain relevancy.
For a lesson on rebuilding, they need only look to their enemies. In 2008, after Obama handily defeated GOP challenger U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, some political observers had written the Republican Party obituary.
Republicans sprung to life in 2010, nationally and in Wisconsin, where they swept back into control of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion.
“It has been a long 15 months,” said Burke of the La Crosse County Democrats. “I don’t know if demoralizing is the word. People are tired and they need some time to get their energy back.”