Though Democrats failed to gain enough state Senate seats to retake the majority in Wisconsin's recall elections, there were hopeful signs for the party even in one of the districts they lost. Returns from the recall elections suggest that Democrats have begun to recover blue-collar support in Wisconsin, which cratered in 2010 and will be key to President Obama's chances across the Upper Midwest next November.
The six state Senate districts that held elections last night broke down simply along one economic measure: according to Census Bureau estimates, the median household income is above $50,000 per year in three districts and below that mark in the other three. Above the $50,000 level, the Democratic state Senate candidates made no gains against the Republican incumbents. But Democrats captured two of the lower-income districts last night (the 18th and 32nd) and lost narrowly in the third (the 14th), vastly improving on Democratic performance in those districts last November, and suggesting the party and its union allies successfully targeted working-class whites in the recall race.
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 President 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.
Poor support from non-college whites doomed Feingold, among others, to defeat in 2010. He actually won narrowly among Wisconsin's white college graduates in 2010, according to exit polls, but now-Sen. Ron Johnson beat him badly, and sealed his overall victory by winning the state's non-college whites 58-40 percent.
If these signs of recovery among non-college whites are more than fleeting, they will prove important to Democrats' chances in the Upper Midwest in 2012. A real recovery among non-college whites will be welcome news for Obama and his party this cycle.