Last night, I stayed up late streaming news channels on my computer to find out the result of the recall elections in Wisconsin. Though I don’t live in Wisconsin, I had a heavy interest in the recall election because I feel it may be a preview of the 2012 elections, as well as a test of how Democrats now compete in a political climate in which corporations can now dump as much money into elections as they want, thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United, which basically gave corporations unlimited spending power in our election cycles. Furthermore, the election was also a test of organized labor, which normally helps Democrats. This whole recall election began in March, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature succeeded at stripping most public employees of their right to collectively bargain. This attack on unions drew massive protests in Madison. After Walker succeeded, progressives pushed back and organized recall elections to try to gain control of the state Senate and halt Walker’s right-wing agenda
Like other progressives, I was optimistic Democrats would win 3 out of the 6 races, oust the GOP incumbents, and restore public employees right to collectively bargain. Unfortunately, the Democrats only won 2 out of the 6 races and did not flip the majority in the state Senate. There are several thoughts I have about the importance of this race.
I want to point out this election may go down in history as the most expensive state race in the country’s history. So far, about $35 million has been spent on these recall elections, according to the Milwuakee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, which quotes the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an organization that tracks campaign money. Unions poured millions into these campaigns, but so did right-wing organizations and right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers. This race was a real test of the power of unions and progressive groups to compete with right-wing funding in the post-Citizens United world. Unfortunately, unions and progressives lost, no matter how they spin this.
It’s true Dems were fighting on the GOP’s turf, against GOP incumbents, and in districts that are generally Republican, but progressives had the momentum on their side. What’s alarming is that grassroots action, which was seen in Wisconsin, simply may not be enough to compete with right-wing funding and the ability of people like the Koch brothers to pour millions and millions into campaigns, thanks to the Citizens United ruling. This race is only a preview of the money that will be spent in 2012. And I’m starting to believe our elections are indeed now bought by the highest bidder.
What will the left’s solution be going forward? This race was a test of organized labor’s power to organize and spend money to compete with right-wing groups. Organized labor and progressives lost, no matter how Dems may try to spin this story. They lost. What does the left have that can compete with the money spent by the right? How will Obama and Democrats running for House and Senate seats survive against the millions, possibly billions that will be spent by right-wing millionaires and billionaires to defeat them next year? What answer do they have to that? Unions have always been the Democrats’ greatest fundraising tools, but unions are now being outspent drastically, as seen in Wisconsin.
What’s even more unsettling about the results of last night is the fact that Gov. Walker’s war on the middle class will not stop, and it’s likely to inspire other right-wing legislatures, especially in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The Republicans in some of those states, especially in Ohio ad Michigan, have already cracked down on unions, and now they’ll see that the recall elections in WI didn’t give Democrats enough needed victories. These are also generally swing states that Democrats must win in 2012 if they want to do well overall.
Democrats need an answer to Citizens United, the Tea Party, and the general energy on the right. A movement did grow in Wisconsin, and the fact these grassroots organizers were able to even force recall elections and take away two seats from the GOP is remarkable, but there still needs to be more. There needs to be a greater pushback against Citizens United and the fact corporations now can dump unlimited funding into our election cycles. Progressives need a movement and fundraising efforts that can compete with the right. I hope what happened in Wisconsin over these last several months sparks a larger movement. And I doubt the fight in Wisconsin is over yet. There are two more recall elections next Tuesday in the state, both against Democrats. Next year, it’s likely there will be more recall elections against other Republican state Senators, and eventually Scott Walker. Victory may come at some point against Walker’s agenda, but how much damage will be done prior to that?