In the end, Republicans notched an overall victory, but not necessarily a mandate for the policies that led to the recalls.
Democrats were able to unseat two Republicans – albeit one in a pretty Democratic district and another who had pretty serious personal liabilities – but fell short of winning the third seat they needed to retake the majority in the chamber.
As the New York Times’s Nate Silver points out, all but the district mentioned above are essentially swing districts. So the GOP won three of five swing districts.
As far as that goes, this was a win for Republicans. Democrats and organized labor banked on dissatisfaction with Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) budget and his move to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights. In the end, there was hardly the groundswell that the left was looking for.
But do Republicans come out of this smelling like roses? Not quite.
If you’re another governor facing your own decision about reining in collective bargaining rights or otherwise irritating the unions, the fact that Republicans were about a hair’s breadth away from losing their state Senate majority – and full control of the state’s government – has to give you at least some pause.
While Democrats didn’t defeat state Sens. Alberta Darling or Luther Olsen, they did come within about 2,000 votes of defeating Olsen and reclaiming (at least for the moment) control of the state Senate.
The fact that they came that close to stripping Republicans of their Senate majority definitely tempers any amount of vindication that the majority or Walker should be feeling about now.
Now, Republicans will argue that the only reason things got so close is because Democrats flooded the races with money and made this into something much larger than a campaign for state legislative seats.
Republicans were outspent and out-mobilized early on and found themselves on their heels late in the game, and Wisconsin Democrats said their polling late in the race showed them leading three races and tied in the other three.
So, either that polling was very off, or Republicans did a great job of closing the game in the final weeks.
Either way, therein lies the victory. The expectations were so high for Democrats that, when it didn’t pan out, it looks like nothing short of a loss.
The actual truth is somewhere between a loss for Democrats and a huge victory for Republicans.
This is the second time Walker’s governance has endangered the GOP’s hold on major office in Wisconsin – the first being a state Supreme Court seat that liberal groups targeted in April. Had Democrats won that seat, the balance of power on that court would have changed significantly.
Walker may look at the results as vindication. But when it comes to the state senators who could have lost their jobs, there may not be so much confidence.
And for other governors and state legislators dealing with budget issues across the country, you can still bet they will be wary of earning the ire of organized labor, which has now waged two large-scale campaigns in Wisconsin and is doing the same in Ohio, where a repeal of Gov. John Kasich’s (R) own move to restrict collective bargaining rights will be on the ballot in November and appears to have a good chance of passing.
There’s also, of course, still the chance that Democrats move to recall Walker once he’s eligible (he must have been in office one year before the process can begin).
The results Tuesday make that less likely, to be sure, but for an interest group that has significant resources and still may see the need to send a message, it’s another opportunity.
Walker is not bulletproof – as shown by his 37 percent approval rating in a recent University of Wisconsin poll – and could be a ripe target, especially if someone like former senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) runs.
The question is whether labor has the energy and desire to risk the financial and public relations costs of a third loss in the Badger State.
As of now, Republicans rightly feel a sense of victory in the early battles, but the war is not won.