Labor came up short in Wisconsin. What does it mean?

at 01:08 PM ET, 08/10/2011


Two men cast their votes for the 32nd Senate District recall election Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, at the OmniCenter in Onalaska, Wis.(AP Photo/La Crosse Tribune, Rory O'Driscoll)
National labor groups spent millions of dollars to retake control of the Wisconsin state Senate Tuesday but came up a seat short.

Some within the labor movement cast the recall elections in the Badger State as a victory — Democrats knocked off two sitting Republican senators — and insisted that a message had been sent.

“While disappointed about not taking back the Senate, there are still two fewer anti-worker state senators in Wisconsin than last week,” said Kristen Crowell, field director for “We are Wisconsin”, a Democratic group leading efforts in the state. “New senators Shilling and King will stand strong with working families against Governor Walker’s extreme right wing agenda.”

But even the most loyal labor defenders acknowledged that the goal from the moment that Walker pushed a bill stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights in March until yesterday’s election was to take back the state Senate. And, close doesn’t count in politics.

It’s the second major electoral setback for organized labor in the last two years; unions spent millions to knock off Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a 2010 Democratic primary but came up short.

“The unmistakable lesson is that every time labor makes it about labor, they lose,” said one senior Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s a messenger problem.”

There’s little debate that labor’s share of the electorate has dipped in recent elections.

In 2010, just 17 percent of the electorate said they were a member of a union household. Two years earlier — in a presidential race that elected a Democratic president — the union household number stood at 21 percent, the lowest it had been in any presidential election dating back to 1972. (The peak of labor’s share of the electorate was in 1976 when 34 percent of voters were members of a union household.)

And, the last two Democratic presidents have not been of and for labor. Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) during his presidency and many unions leaders have expressed frustration about President Obama’s willingness to stick his neck out further on labor priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he and the president had a “frank, open discussion” last week, adding: “We told him exactly how we feel about the economy.”

Within the labor movement, there was a significant effort to look on the bright side after Tuesday’s results.

One Democratic strategist involved in the Wiconsin campaign insisted that Democrats’ competitiveness in all six seats, which were won by Republican state senators in 2008 despite Obama sweeping the Badger State, was a testament to the power of the labor movement.

“Winning it all is always better and there would be real celebrations if we had managed to take back the Senate,” said the source. “But this was a tough uphill battle from the beginning.”

There is an active debate about the generic nature of the six state Senate seats in question. All were won by Obama in 2008 and then by Walker in 2010. Nate Silver, numbers guru extraordinaire for the New York Times, notes that “all of these seats can be classified as being in swing districts” but adds that “most are a couple of points more Republican than Wisconsin as a whole.”

Whether the state Senate seats in question are pure toss-ups or tilting Republican, however, Democrats knew the underlying numbers and still insisted that the majority was very much in play right up until all of the votes were counted.

And as the great philosopher Omar Little — of “The Wire” fame — once said: “If you come at the king, you best not miss.” It’s hard to see what happened in Wisconsin as anything short of a miss for an organized labor movement that had hoped the recall elections would be read as a sign that unions still carried significant political power in the country.

To be sure, they do — and still will. Labor is very well funded and has a grassroots army than no one in the party — perhaps not even President Obama — can match.

But, losing the two biggest political fights you pick in consecutive years is a tough blow for a movement working to prove it remains the biggest player in Democratic politics.

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