Democrats can take solace in the fact that Walker's agenda is apparently only popular among conservatives.
"The people have spoken." That's what both sides are saying about the recall elections. Democrats and Republicans will both claim vindication, with Dems pointing to the unprecedented nature of flipping two state Senate seats in one year and Republicans pointing to their retention of the chamber as evidence that the people of the state are on their side.
Neither is correct. If anything, the results demonstrated that the state remains as divided as ever over Gov. Scott Walker and his policies. The six recalls against incumbent GOP senators, which all took place in traditionally Republican districts, demonstrated that Republicans think Walker is the savior and Democrats believe him to be Satan.
To many of us in Madison, that Republicans didn't suffer disastrous losses last night is puzzling. But Scott Walker is such a jerk, we think. How could people not see that?
To the average Wisconsinite, however, Walker's purported offenses are abstract.
He took away collective bargaining rights from public workers. So what? For most voters, those are rights they've never had and never really dream of having. Voters can't be expected to consider an issue important unless they're told how it will affect their own lives.
Walker also made deep cuts to public schools and universities. Countless Democratic TV ads instructed us to be angry that he had cut $800 million in aid to school districts. Most Wisconsinites know learning is important, but they don't know what that number means in the context of their child's life. I try to keep up with this stuff the best I can and I had to look up some numbers to figure out how messed up a cut that was.
In addition, there was a plethora of liberal causes that Walker put in jeopardy, from the environment to health care coverage for the poor. But in conservative districts these concerns could only gain so much traction.
The outrage from union members and others around the state was certainly genuine, but it had a much bigger impact in Madison than elsewhere because we were watching it 24/7 through our windows. Here the mind-boggling protests inspired a frenzy of political activism from previously inactive citizens, but I would guess that for many thousands of non-union workers across the state, the recalls appeared to be just another election with little to no impact on their lives.
Democrats can take solace in the fact that Walker's agenda is apparently only popular among conservatives. Unseating Sens. Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper, who represent slightly Democratic and slightly Republican districts, respectively, is no easy task. It shows that Walker is not a man of the people, he is a man of the conservative movement. It's a crucial distinction. There was such a thing as a "Reagan Democrat" or a "Tommy Thompson Democrat." There will never be "Walker Democrats."
In addition, the Democrats did significantly slim down the GOP's majority in the Senate, meaning Republicans will likely have to pay attention to the few moderates in their party and -- as shocking as this sounds -- maybe even deal with the other side of the aisle.
As some in the media have speculated, the victors last night may have been the several remaining moderates in the Senate, particularly Sen. Dale Schultz, the former GOP majority leader and the only Republican to vote against the collective bargaining bill. Schultz has apparently struck up a close working relationship with Sen. Tim Cullen, a former Senate Democratic leader who later worked in the administration of Tommy Thompson.
And there are likely others in the GOP -- especially the veterans -- who are looking for a return to more peaceful politics. Senate President Mike Ellis, for instance. Whether or not we see these Republicans standing up to the governor's agenda in public, you can bet that there will be a meaningful shift behind the scenes that will prevent Walker's most radical right-wing fantasies from being realized.
And, of course, we all ask: Will Walker himself be recalled? The strong Democratic performance in conservative areas suggests such an effort has a chance, and state Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate said the two victories in the Senate were just the first step to achieving that goal.
What I fear, however, is that such a campaign will undermine a possible return to cooperation in the Legislature. The moderates will once again be forced to choose sides, and voters on both sides of the spectrum will continually be encouraged to hate each other. This might simply be the price we pay for getting our hack of a governor out of office and onto the Fox News staff, where he belongs.
But I hope that won't be necessary. With any luck, a few reasonable legislators can quietly tell Scott Walker that they will no longer sacrifice their political careers and the sanity of this state for the sake of his reckless, perpetual presidential campaign.