Why 'Wisconsin 14' are ready to return: They think they're winning

Wisconsin's 14 Democratic absentee state senators indicate they're ready to return – because they think they've already won the war, if not this battle.

Andy Manis / AP / File
Filmmaker Michael Moore, center, makes his way through a crowd at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Saturday, March 5, after more than two weeks of protests over the governor's proposed budget that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.

It’s looking more and more like Wisconsin’s 14 rogue state Senate Democrats will soon return to the Badger State.

The 14 lawmakers – Republicans call them “fleebaggers” – have been camped across the border in Illinois for 18 days, blocking a vote on a bill that would strip most Wisconsin public unions of collective bargaining rights. But several now say they’ll be back soon, according to media reports. And their leader, state Sen. Mark Miller, has asked GOP Gov. Scott Walker (R) for a meeting.

In a letter delivered to the governor on Monday, Senator Miller asks for an in-person confab “as soon as possible to resume negotiations” over their current standoff.

Are the footloose Democrats getting tired of living in hotels? Eighteen days can be an eternity if you’re lunching from vending machines and sleeping in a rented bed. At least one, state Sen. Robert Wirch, has sneaked back over the border from Illinois and returned to his Wisconsin home, claim Republicans.

Senator Wirch’s action “was pretty brave in that we have now executed an order which is very similar to a warrant for his arrest, [and for the arrest of] any other Democrat senator that shows up in Wisconsin,” said state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R) last week on Fox News.

But Democrats might have better reasons than simple fatigue for returning to Madison: They can’t live in Illinois forever, and they think they can now claim victory anyway.

Why do Wisconsin Democrats think they’ve won? Because – and this is a Democratic theory, mind you – even if Governor Walker prevails and the Senate passes his budget bill with its collective bargaining limitations, he’s lost the war.

Polls show state voters don’t like the provision. Recall efforts have been mounted against both Republican and Democratic senators, and Republicans may lose their statehouse majority in that political scrum.

The Democrats have succeeded in making a big deal of the collective bargaining issue, and that, for the moment, may be all they can do.

“Our action gave the people of Wisconsin their voice back, and they are not going to be silent any longer about the assault on workers and the middle class,” Democratic state Sen. Robert Jauch told the Washington Post.

It’s certainly possible that the whole recall thing will scramble Wisconsin politics. Recall efforts have now been launched against eight Senate Republicans and eight Senate Democrats – almost half of the 33-member chamber. (Most senators not facing recall efforts just haven’t been in office long enough to be targeted, under Wisconsin state law.)

And Wisconsin is fickle. It is a true swing state – not just at the presidential election level, but at the local level as well, notes poll expert Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog.

Wisconsin counties alternate back and forth between the parties. Aside from a few urban areas, most parts of the state will vote for either Republicans or Democrats, Mr. Silver notes.

“This is why the electoral pressure is liable to be fairly acute on members of the state senate and state assembly: there are not many intrinsically safe seats,” writes Silver.

But do state voters really oppose the collective bargaining measure? Most polls show it is unpopular, and that Governor Walker has lost support. But the same surveys show that the Democrats have not covered themselves with glory by fleeing the state.

Democrats frame the exodus as a filibuster, mounted with feet. Republicans describe it as antidemocratic, with a small “d.” In the GOP view, by hightailing it across the border, Democrats are preventing the duly-elected Republican majority in the Wisconsin state Senate from carrying out its duties.

“It really, I think, has become a question as to whether or not the legislature in Wisconsin is actually functioning,” Senator Fitzgerald told Fox.

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