Wisconsin Democrats came up just short last night, flipping two seats in recall elections but not the three needed to take back the state Senate. Currently the Senate will have a 17-16 majority for Republicans; there are two recall elections against incumbent Democrats Robert Wirch and Jim Holperin next Tuesday, August 16. It’s possible that the disappointment of not reaching the goal number in the Republican recalls will depress Democratic turnout, but the expectation is that Wirch and Holperin will hold the seats.

I’m sure there are lots of people upset with this outcome, and to an extent I share the disappointment. The goal was to win back the state Senate, and Democrats didn’t get there. But what they did was win two legislative seats over Republicans in the middle of their terms. Just 13 state legislators had been recalled in US history before last night. A more timid coalition wouldn’t have even tried this, even in retaliation for the assault on working families carried out by Scott Walker (who I believe remains the next recall target next year). But instead, Democrats fought in six right-leaning districts won by Republicans in the Democratic wave election of 2008, got outspent by corporate interests, and came away defeating two state Senators, Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper. Jennifer Shilling beat Kapanke by double digits, and King won her rematch against Hopper 51-49. The balance of power does shift in the state Senate; Dale Schultz, the moderate Republican who voted against the collective bargaining-stripping bill in March, now slides into the Ben Nelson role, with his vote decisive on virtually everything. And again, these were wins on unfriendly turf. There was another one in New Hampshire last night, with a special election victory in a red-leaning seat. You can take that harbinger for 2012 for what it’s worth.

What’s more, the races energized the population in Wisconsin, enough to create a real accountability moment. Look at the turnout numbers compiled by political science professor Charles Franklin. In five out of six districts, the turnout in a midsummer recall approached the number for the 2010 gubernatorial election. That’s impressive. The passion was evident on both sides, which led to the less-than-optimal result. But now you have hundreds if not thousands of progressive organizers who had never before worked on a campaign, battle-tested and ready to work again.

Why didn’t the ultimate goal get reached? A few factors, aside from playing on Republican turf:

• The extra month. Republicans played a dirty trick by running fake Democrats in the recalls, forcing primary elections that extended the recall process by a month. This gave Republicans more time to fundraise. In almost every election, the late outside money came in on the Republican side, money that may not have been there in the same numbers in a quick strike election. What’s more, it gave the elections one month distance from the anti-union bill and the radical Republican budget.

• Fred Clark’s campaign. The Clark race against Sen. Luther Olsen (R) came the closest without the Democrats winning. Clark ended up falling short by 2,219 votes in a nasty election that featured a lot of mudslinging. Clark had some unforced errors, with Olsen’s campaign going after his driving record, and a late-campaign phone call to a female voter where he inadvertently left on her answering machine, “I feel like calling her back and smacking her around.” This became a big deal in the close election where about 1,000 votes swinging from one side to the other would have made the difference.

• That corporate money. Thanks to Citizens United, the cash poured into these races, making them some of the most expensive state legislative elections in US history. Democrats countered with what they could on-air, and poured a lot into turnout, but they were definitely swimming upstream. And the airwaves were thick with conservative lies.

• Kathy Nickolaus. The Waukesha County Clerk held her votes back almost until the end in the Sandy Pasch-Alberta Darling race, and when she relinquished them, they revealed a big lead for Darling. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair, Mike Tate, initially sent out a damning condemnation of Nickolaus, alleging “tampering,” but then reversed himself late last night, saying that “we will not pursue questions of irregularities.”

I’m sure that the youth/labor/progressive movement that wanted this recall election to go successfully is dissatisfied with the outcome. But they put together a grassroots coalition that achieved something unprecedented in US history. And they did it with a no-holds-barred class-based message, albeit not one that fully utilized the assault on worker’s rights that kicked off the protests in Madison in the first place. I think they can be proud of what they did, and they can keep the energy going.

Sadly, consequential fights in American politics never end – they require constant struggle and vigilance. Progressives in Wisconsin will have even MORE disadvantages next time around. They will have to contend with more money from the other side, they will have to run under new gerrymandered maps signed just yesterday by Gov. Walker, they will face a conservative movement that knows they ducked the best chance to disable them in the near term, and they will be constrained by the new union rules in Wisconsin, which will sap at their ability to function in the same manner. But the grassroots movement will keep fighting, keep contending in every inch of the state, and with any luck, that will eventually yield success. And I don’t think there’s any question that the next stage includes bringing some accountability to Scott Walker.

Fred Clark Campaign

Fred Clark Campaign by WisPolitics.com

So the Democrats in Wisconsin came up short in their efforts to flip the State Senate in recall elections. On the binary tally of win-lose, it is a loss. But I am not sure that is the complete story.

It is still an historic effort and that also has to be scored as a win. Remember how we got to these elections in the first place. When the Republicans gained control of the both Houses of the Legislature and the Governors office, they set out on a path of policy that incensed many Wisconsinites.

Their hard right policies and the way they went about enacting them mobilized tens of thousands of Union members, workers and average voters. They went out into the bitterly cold Wisconsin winter to make their extreme displeasure known, and when they were ignored they took advantage of the process to try to recall the six Republican State Senators that were eligible under the law for recall.

They faced an uphill fight all the way. Getting the signatures in the right amount of time, faux Democratic candidates running with the explicit purpose of slowing the process down and allowing out of state money to work longer.

We should not discount that money. Millions and millions of dollars from the Koch Brothers (the nominal owners of Gov. Scott Walker, or maybe they just lease him?) and Crossroads GPS have poured like the Red River in flood into the state.

Then there is the fact that all six of these Republicans were elected in 2008, a year that was a wave election for Democrats. These are what you would call “safe-seats” for Republicans.

All of these factors made this a truly epic struggle, and yet the people of Wisconsin went out and came within a hair’s breadth of achieving the ultimate goal of flipping control of the State Senate. That they failed by one seat is a pretty strong indicator of how close this really was.

Dad always said (yeah, he was a huge one for sayings) “Nothing ever beat a good try but failure.” Sometimes you do all you can and you still come up short of the goal. But a lot of that determination of failure is dependent on what your goal is.

If you have multiple goals there can be a range of success and failure. Last night in Wisconsin we did see an overall electoral defeat, as long as we focus on the idea of flipping the Senate, but was that really the only goal?  [cont’d.]

David Dayen

David Dayen