The tide is turning.
When progressive champion Russ Feingold lost his Senate reelection bid in 2010, it was one of the Tea Party's greatest symbolic victories. In the GOP tidal wave across the country, this loss was among the most painful to liberals. It showed that even well-established, national figures weren't safe. Wisconsin gave the Tea Party one of its most prized scalps.
Now, only five months later, Wisconsin has hosted the first battle that shows the right-wing's tea has gone cold.
Yesterday, in the state's Supreme Court election, challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg declared victory over incumbent conservative justice David Prosser. The 204 votes that gave Kloppenburg the lead will now undergo the scrutiny of an intense recount, and her declaration was more symbolic than final. However the election turns out, though, it is already a symbolic loss for conservatives everywhere and the extreme politics of the Tea Party.
Why is this Supreme Court race so important? Because this battle was one front in the war between workers and right-wingers, which was sparked by Governor Scott Walker's push to end collective bargaining in the state. As disgruntled Wisconsinites mount recall campaigns again a host of Republican state representatives, and plan a similar initiative against the governor himself, yesterday's election was a preview of those fights. Kloppenburg's lead -- and perhaps victory -- is going to fuel those progressive efforts…and should make Republicans scared.
Incumbent justices rarely face real challenges. Turnout for these elections is usually low. Given the Republican dominance as recently as November, it should have been a cake-walk. In this context, Kloppenburg's competitiveness shows that something has changed. And that "something" was the extreme overreach of conservatives' war against workers. The response has been seen in the streets of Madison for nearly two months, in solidarity rallies that have taken place around the country. And in the nineteen counties that had voted for Walker five months ago, which voted for the Democratic candidate yesterday.
The Tea Party rose in prominence for several reasons. Their unapologetic objections to the Obama administration tapped into real fear and frustration around the country in the summer of 2009. Their sensational statements (and costumes) were effective media bait. But their real strength came from their ability to scare, compel and beat candidates. As Republican elected officials felt the pressure of Tea Party-backed primary challengers, they moved to the right or moved out of the way, and The Tea Party Express gained momentum.
Now, the Tea Party approach may have lost a seat for a Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin. It may cost State Senators their jobs, or at least put them in pitched recall fights. Their momentum has faltered.
At the same time, there is a progressive opportunity. Can those who stand with labor hold elected officials who oppose labor accountable? Can pro-worker, pro-job campaigns (including the Job Party, with which I am involved in New York) make incumbents and candidates alike more responsive to a progressive economic vision? Will regular Americans turn back the tide?
If it can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen everywhere. Elected officials of all parties are noting there are consequences to crusading against working families.
This news from Wisconsin comes, of course, as the Tea Party energy in Washington propels the Republican House Majority toward triggering a government shutdown. While we hope for the sake of our country that a deal is reached and shutdown averted, Republicans should especially hope for that outcome for the sake of their political future as well. All they have to do is look to Wisconsin to see the potential consequences of their current path.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."