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Wisconsin Recall Results Show Gains Among White Working Class

Harold Meyerson had a downbeat take on the flipping of two seats in Wisconsin’s recall elections, which kind of ignores the fact that the six elections took place in Republican districts. He’s right that this is the second time in two years that labor has made a major investment and taken a stand (the other being Bill Halter in the Arkansas Senate primary) and came up just a bit short. But this part actually is at variance with the results:

The key for the Democrats will be their ability to not only turn out their base but limit their losses within the state’s disproportionately large white working class, a bastion of Democratic support in the days when its members worked in the hundreds of unionized factories that once anchored town after town. The factories, the unions, the jobs, and, in some places, the towns are largely gone now, as is the Democratic tilt of the state’s white working-class voters. Obama’s only hope for retaining some of these voters next year is to preside over an economic recovery or, that failing, at least to sketch a plausible vision of how good jobs can return to the post-industrial Midwest. The odds that either or both of these will happen aren’t high, which is why Wisconsin, like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, will be among the most hotly contested states in next year’s election.

This is actually where labor did very well. As Scott Bland notes, the two victories in purple or red districts came in seats where the median household income is below the $50,000 mark. A third seat with those characteristics, the Luther Olsen seat, was where Democrats came closest to winning. The other three seats, all Republican victories, had median incomes above $50,000. Bland extrapolates:

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett and now former-Sen. Russ Feingold each ran at about 40 percent in the 14th and 18th districts in 2010. But Democrats running in those districts’ recall elections Tuesday carried 48 and 51 percent of the vote, respectively. Barrett and Feingold did better in the 32nd district, winning close to half of the votes last November, and Democrat Jennifer Shilling also improved there, gathering 55 percent of votes cast. The Democratic Senate candidates all pulled close to Obama’s rates of support when he narrowly carried their districts in 2008.

There were no exit polls conducted in the recall election. But no more than a quarter of residents are college-educated in any of those three districts, and each is at least 90 percent white. Democratic gains could hardly have come from anywhere else but blue-collar whites. By contrast, the Democrats running in the more affluent state Senate districts yesterday failed to improve on the 2010 performance of Barrett and Feingold.

Democrats ran a relentlessly class-based message in all six seats. But the message was only really tailored to those three. The Alberta Darling, Rob Cowles and Sheila Harsdorf seats are really exurbs (Darling and Harsdorf represent suburbs of Milwaukee and Minneapolis, respectively, while Cowles is in the Green Bay area). This is the aspirational class that would be somewhat less receptive to the class-based message. Democrats still improved in those seats, but less dramatically than elsewhere, and in Pasch’s case, mainly because that’s a strange district that features working-class parts of Milwaukee along with the exurbs.

When the message and the district were in line with one another, Democrats did very well. Fred Clark had some personal issues in that race and a very nasty campaign run against him, and he still nearly beat Luther Olsen in a seat that has been Republican for 100 years. And Jessica King and Jennifer Shilling emerged victorious. Working-class whites put them over the top.

This is a very good lesson to learn from all this: that focusing on how education and other priorities for public investment are being stolen to provide tax cuts for the rich and corporations, the focus of practically every ad in Wisconsin, resonates with the white working class. It actually creates an alternative.

UPDATE: Citizens and activists in Wisconsin are already looking forward to the recall of Scott Walker.

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David Dayen

David Dayen