The Republicans had one very nice, and important, win last night: Democrats failed to coordinate in California’s 31st congressional district, and as a result both candidates on the November ballot will be Republicans. It’s a clear missed opportunity for the Democrats in a swing district.
Wisconsin? If the results hold up, it’s a mixed result. Scott Walker remains governor, but Democrats complete a stunning, unprecedented three-seat swing of the state senate to grab the majority there.
Oh, that’s not how it was reported, was it? Well, of course only the last of those state senate recalls was yesterday; the other two are old news. But not that old. Combined, they add up to make a major difference for policymaking in Wisconsin over the remainder of Walker’s term. There will probably not be, assuming the election results hold up (the state senate recall was very close and absentee ballots could still swing it back the other way), any more sweeping conservative legislation in Wisconsin for now.
But most of us outside of Wisconsin don’t really care about policymaking there all that much. What we care about is whether this election is a signal about November, and whether the overall effect of the results will be to encourage or discourage Republicans in other states (and nationally) from emulating Walker’s attacks on unions.
On the first point: this election says, most likely, nothing at all about November. Even without the exit polling that holds a fair amount of good news for Barack Obama (as Jamelle Bouie pointed out this morning) and remembering that Obama won’t be outspent 5 to 1 or 8 to 1, or whatever it was, the truth is that special elections simply don’t do very much to predict the following general election.
The second point, concerning how this will affect Republicans elsewhere, is really the most important one. Here, spin might really matter quite a bit. If Republicans look back on Wisconsin as a glorious victory (Walker survived!), then that would, presumably, embolden them to try to squeeze out everything they possibly could every time they get a chance. If, on the other hand, they think of it in terms of a backlash that cost them four state senate seats and the majority there, plus forced them to play defense in contesting and surviving an election that they would never have had to fight otherwise, then it might encourage politicians looking at it to be a lot more cautious.
My guess is that hard-liners win the spin on this one, and I’m not altogether certain that I’m right about it. Of course, there are multiple possible messages to take away. Even if future Republicans believe that there’s a good chance that passing whatever they can when they get the chance will cost them, they may believe that it’s worth it — as many Democratic members of the historic 111th Congress most likely believed that health-care reform and other legislation was worth it even if it did cost them their jobs.
So if you want to see a big partisan win yesterday, look to California and a clear House pickup by the GOP. That one matters! But Wisconsin — again assuming that the results of that state senate recall hold up — is far more of a mixed result, and Democrats who pushed the recall campaign have nothing to be ashamed of; they didn’t win it all, but they surely won quite a bit.