$20 million – that’s how much labor unions and their Democratic supporters reportedly poured into the recall elections in Wisconsin. They outspent Republicans two-to-one. And yet they fell short at taking control of the Wisconsin state senate, only winning two out of the six Republican seats they attempted to recall.

It’s a crushing blow to the unions, especially coming on the heels of their failure to oust Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser just a few months ago. The Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog reports this isn’t just a defeat for labor, but also for the progressive movement:

If these results stand, it is an undeniable defeat for labor and for progressive activists.

Democrats and their allies are arguing taking down two incumbents is itself a victory, given that recalling an official is in­cred­ibly difficult and rare. But they invested very heavily in taking back the state senate and fell short.

The Democrats didn’t just outspend Republicans – they also had a strong head start in terms of organizing. The Post reports the GOP was caught off-guard by the amount of national Democratic money and support that flooded the elections:

As of a couple weeks ago, about two-thirds of that has gone to benefit Democrats, and Republicans acknowledge that they were essentially caught flat-footed by the whole thing. And because of that, they’ve been fighting from behind in recent weeks.

“This is a referendum on Walker, and the Democrats have everything to lose, and the Republicans did not have a plan for what they started,” said one Republican monitoring the recalls. “And the national folks never saw it for what it was, which is a proxy fight.”

And Republicans may be able to make up for the two seats they lost last night as early as next week, when two Democratic incumbents will face a recall.

There’s a lot for conservatives to feel good about here. But there are also reasons to remain cautious. At the Weekly Standard, John McCormack warns if there’s a recall election for Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans shouldn’t expect to win so easily:

But just because Republicans narrowly won rounds one (Prosser) and two (senate recalls) of the fight for Wisconsin, it doesn’t mean that round three–a potential recall of Scott Walker–will be an easy victory. Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold would still be a formidable challenger. He lost during the 2010 GOP wave by 5 points, and has a certain appeal for some swing voters, though his mavericky image was tarnished in 2010.

Of course, after two high-profile failures, do the unions really want to risk the national humiliation of potentially losing a race against Walker himself? Last night was largely seen as a referendum of Walker’s policies, and so far voters are giving him the benefit of the doubt. And time is on his side here – the longer voters have to see the positive outcomes of his policies, the more favorably they’re likely to view him.

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