Wisconsin's angry message for America

Wisconsinites protest outside the State Capitol in March over the loss of bargaining rights for public union workers.

Story highlights

  • Alan Borsuk: Democrats wanted to stop Wisconsin's swing to the right with recall election
  • Borsuk: Democrats needed to oust 3 GOP state legislators to gain majority in Senate
  • Two were ousted and GOP declares vindication, Democrats claim momentum, he says
  • Borsuk: Real takeaway from the election is the polarization, anger in Wisconsin
Wisconsin -- so polarized, so evenly split, so politically inflamed -- sent a message to the nation Tuesday night.
Republicans will say it is a message that vindicates the strong action taken by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature to hold down spending and strip formerly powerful public employee unions of all but a bit of their power. The Republican actions became a national sensation in February when Democratic senators fled the state for three weeks and tens of thousands of people protested daily at the state Capitol.
Democrats will point to their victories in ousting two Republicans from the state Senate and to how much better they did on Republican turf than in the November 2010 statewide elections. They showed that momentum has swung their way, they will say.
As a pretty impartial person, my reading of the dominant message is: We live in polarizing, sharply split, inflamed times when it comes to politics. And that's only getting more intense.
You saw it in Washington in the last few weeks. You saw it this week in Wisconsin, which has been Exhibit A so far in 2011 when it comes to heavy political punching at the state level. And you're going to see it again and again across the country -- especially in places such as Wisconsin -- at least through November 2012.
Tuesday's wave of recall elections was unique in American political history, with Democrats challenging six sitting Republican senators. To overturn the Republican majority in the state Senate, Democrats needed to win three of the six. They won two. On both sides, the recall elections broke spending records for Wisconsin, with millions of dollars from national sources buying large volumes of aggressive -- in fact, mean -- television ads. Turnout on Tuesday was as high as in many regularly scheduled elections.
If Democrats had regained the majority, they would have been able to halt Walker's momentum. They wouldn't have been able to repeal the law on public unions because Walker and the continuing Republican majority in the state Assembly would have prevented that. But regaining the majority would have sent a powerful message both within Wisconsin and nationwide: Go too far to the right and you lose.
Instead, it's a more muddled and subdued message for the Democrats: Go too far to the right and you could get huge heat, and you might lose.
Beyond the public faces of both parties, the Republicans are probably in a better mood today than the Democrats. They did suffer a setback and their 17-16 Senate majority is fragile, especially given some of the people involved. But they also rebuffed just about everything opponents, including union leaders from across the U.S., threw at them.
Leaders of both parties know this may have been the Democrats' best chance for years to come. A highly significant development happened Tuesday outside of the recall elections: Walker signed a redistricting plan for Wisconsin that moved through the legislature with unusual and clearly partisan speed.
It gives Republicans firmer grips on some of the Senate and Assembly districts that have been close to evenly split in recent elections. More than any message from the voters, the redistricting plan improved Republican chances of holding on to legislative majorities for years to come.
But don't expect Democrats to give up. These are fighting times in Wisconsin and no one got the fight taken out of them Tuesday. The results probably just firmed up Wisconsin's place in the front ranks when it comes to combativeness. The outcomes certainly didn't leave things in a more middle-of-the-road place where compromise is on politicians' minds.
There are two more recall elections next week, with Democratic Senate incumbents being challenged. Then it's straight into 2012, with a looming effort to recall Walker himself added to the elections for president, an open U.S. Senate seat, and the large majority of legislative seats.
Wisconsin had breathtakingly close outcomes in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore and 2004 Bush vs. Kerry presidential races, each time with the Democrat winning by a hair. We already knew this was a state that is split almost 50-50. If the 2012 presidential race is close nationwide, count on Wisconsin to be one of the most heated battlegrounds.
If you thought of Wisconsin before this year as a place where politics happens on a partisan, but fairly genteel, playing field, you're living in the past. You're only going to see more take-no-prisoners politics here. It's as if we've forgotten any other way to play the game.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Borsuk.