Wisconsin Democrats look to rebound at convention
APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats took their first step Friday toward healing from this week's recall losses, sounding an optimistic tone as they geared up to help re-elect President Barack Obama and elect U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate.
At their annual convention in Appleton, Democratic leaders said they had no regrets about waging the long and costly recall fight. They thanked volunteers and gave them permission to take a brief break after all their campaign work, but reminded them that more elections are around the corner.
Mike Tate, the chairman of the state party, said he refused to second guess pursuing fighting for the recalls. He said Democrats would never shy away from fighting for what was right or from advocating what they believe in.
"We have no regrets. We are not sorry, because some things are worth fighting for. And some things are worth losing for, and we are not going to back down from that," he said, drawing a standing ovation from the several hundred convention-goers.
Despite their optimism, Democrats face challenges that won't be easy to overcome. The Republican victories Tuesday were so decisive as to suggest the GOP is building up major momentum throughout the state.
In the biggest race, Republican Gov. Scott Walker defeated his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 53 percent to 46 percent, even though more than 900,000 people signed petitions to recall Walker. Four other Republicans — Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three state senators — also successfully defended their seats in decisive recall wins.
Republicans touted Walker's victory as an indication that Wisconsin voters backed his strategy to curb state spending, in part by eliminating nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
But Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind said that was a skewed interpretation
"I don't believe for one second this is an affirmation of Gov. Walker's policies," he told the crowd Friday. "I think there was feedback that maybe this was not an appropriate use of the recall process."
That was one of two common themes repeated on stage. Speakers including U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore and state Rep. Peter Barca suggested that many voters supported Walker only because they thought a recall was too extreme, and also that there was one victory not to be overlooked — the retaking of the state Senate.
However, that victory is still in question. The recall effort against GOP state Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine remains too close to call. Democrats have claimed victory for challenger John Lehman after an unofficial tally showed him leading Wanggaard by just less than 800 votes.
If Lehman is declared the winner, Democrats would have a 17-16 edge in the Wisconsin Senate.
"There were two big prizes — one was the governor's seat and the other was the state Senate," Barca said. "And we now control the state Senate. Don't underestimate that."
Other speakers Friday turned their attention away from the recalls and toward the next round of elections in five months.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who chairs the Democratic National Committee, urged Democrats to keep up the energy for Obama and Baldwin.
"No one will outwork us. That's my motto for this campaign," she said.
Her Republican counterpart said the momentum is clearly with the GOP. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on a conference call earlier Friday that the GOP's formidable get-out-the-vote operation in the Walker recall was being transitioned to the campaign for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Priebus said Republicans made 4.5 million voter contacts during the recall and knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors. More than 20 offices that were opened during the Walker recall will remain in place for the presidential race, said Rick Wiley, political director for the RNC.
"That is the organizational strength we're going to take to November," Priebus said. "We crushed the Democrats on the ground. We beat them at their own game."
Priebus described Wisconsin as a light blue state that can turn red under the right circumstances.
Baldwin didn't seem concerned. She alluded to exit polls in which the same voters who re-elected the Republican Walker also favored the Democratic Obama by 7 percentage points.
"I think in the end people are going to look at Obama and Romney, they'll look at me and whoever the Republicans nominate, and they'll understand who's fighting for them," she said. "No matter who the Republican nominee is, there's going to be such differences that I think people will be very enthusiastic."
Baldwin and her four Republican challengers are running to replace Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. Kohl, who is retiring rather than run for a fifth Senate term, was scheduled to give a farewell address to the Democratic convention Saturday morning.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.