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Conservatives hang on in Wisconsin

There will be no magic potion, no instant formula for Democrats and progressives struggling to come back from their disastrous 2010 election losses.

They had hoped that Tuesday's recall elections in Wisconsin would provide a narrative-changing breakthrough, proof-positive that the overreaching conservatives who now dominate the Republican Party had ignited a middle-of-the-road voter rebellion and inspired a legion of labor and liberal activists who would offer a definitive riposte to the tea party.

What happened instead was not without promise for Democrats, but it was also a sign of the resiliency of conservative activism -- and the power of conservative money.

By holding on to four of its six contested state Senate seats, Gov. Scott Walker's party maintained its majority and a right to claim victory. But that majority is now a precarious one-seat advantage, although Republicans hope they might pick up another seat next week by winning at least one of two recalls directed against Democratic incumbents.

The often pugnacious governor was remarkably mild in a statement he issued after the results were in: "In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward." One Democrat called it the "most conciliatory statement he has ever made." In the meantime, Democrats were touting the potential of their working with Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate who has frequently resisted Walker's arch-conservatism.

Still, this was small comfort compared to what might have been. If only about 1,100 votes had switched in the closest contest, Democrats would have won the extra Senate seat they needed and would now be celebrating their use of Walker's frontal attack on the collective bargaining rights of public employees to produce a political realignment.

These contests will be studied as a laboratory test of wide-open campaign finance laws that allowed outside groups to pour in millions of dollars. Conservatives succeeded in using their large financial advantage to blunt the impact of labor and progressive organizing. All the spending had the effect of transforming the recalls from a progressive crusade into a typical and dispiriting electoral trench war and its weapons of choice, negative ads and nasty mailings.

In truth, the euphoria created by the initial anti-Walker upsurge disguised the fact that the recalls were always destined to be difficult. "This was an extraordinarily hard set of races to win," said Mark Mellman, a pollster who worked with the Wisconsin Democrats. "All these were incumbents who won in 2008 when Barack Obama was sweeping the state. Yet the Republicans lost one-third of their incumbents," referring to the two senators recalled. "I'd be delighted if the Republicans lost one-third of their incumbents in 2012."

Mellman, of course, was putting the best spin on the results for the Democrats. But it's true that these were fights waged in Republican territory.

Republicans can say, and it's true, that a very conservative governor carried out a very conservative agenda and escaped defeat. But he did not escape rebuke, and progressives can legitimately claim that having watched conservatives take fight after fight to their adversaries, a labor-liberal coalition reversed these roles in Wisconsin. Conservatives withstood this assault. Progressives made modest but measurable advances.

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