With six days to go before his recall election, Wisconsin Republican state senator Randy Hopper is out knocking on doors in Fond du Lac, trying to reintroduce himself to his constituents. He bounds like a Labrador from door to door, exuding an enthusiasm reflecting his recent surge in the polls. At houses that display red Hopper signs, he thanks the residents for their support. At houses with no sign, he asks them for their support. “I tend to skip the houses with the blue signs,” he jokes — referring to the Jessica King signs that pepper the neighborhood.
Hopper, a radio-station owner from Fond du Lac, won his seat in 2008 — a year in which the GOP was being wiped off the map around the nation. His district leans Republican most of the time, but Barack Obama received 54 percent of the vote in that election — while Hopper won by 163 votes, keeping the seat in the GOP column after longtime Republican state senator Carol Roessler retired.
Yet in 2011 — just months after the country saw a historic GOP surge — Hopper is fighting for his political life. On August 9, the senator faces a recall election in which he is set for a rematch against his 2008 opponent, Democrat Jessica King. If he loses, it will give Democrats one of the three seats they need to retake the state senate. His fortunes have fluctuated: Upon his election in 2008, he was considered by some to be potential gubernatorial material; earlier in this race, he was left for dead, as polls showed him well behind King; and now, he is gaining momentum.
Hopper and five of his GOP state-senate colleagues landed in this electoral cauldron as a result of their vote to significantly scale back collective bargaining for government employees in Wisconsin. He tells the story of how on the day Gov. Scott Walker introduced his collective-bargaining plan, a number of union members came to his legislative office — they said if he voted against the bill, he would always have a “free ride” to reelection. But if he voted for it, they would come after him with all they had. Even in February, Hopper knew what that meant.
While it was his vote on the collective-bargaining plan that provoked the unions to gather recall signatures against him, collective bargaining hasn’t been much of an issue in the state since the recall process actually started. All around the state, unions have realized that the collective-bargaining issue isn’t a winner, so they have pivoted to other topics — school funding, Medicare, etc.
For Hopper, the unions are primarily focusing on personal scandal. During the initial round of protests in February, union protesters showed up to picket Hopper’s house in Fond du Lac. According to reports, when they set up shop outside the front door, they were greeted by Hopper’s wife, Alysia, who told them that picketing there was a fool’s errand — as Hopper was living in Madison with his 25-year-old mistress.
Through a spokesman, Hopper has issued a statement indicating he and his wife have been separated for around a year; he is currently living in an apartment in his district. He filed for divorce in August of 2010.
The news got worse when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Hopper’s alleged mistress (the newspaper refers to her as his “girlfriend”) had received a job in Scott Walker’s administration at a salary more than $10,000 higher than what the previous employee in that position had been paid. The newspaper strongly played up the implication that something untoward had occurred.
It is this issue that has been hyped to voters in Wisconsin’s 18th state-senate district — and that could ultimately determine control of the state senate. A union-funded group, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, has just begun running radio and television ads hammering away at Hopper’s personal issues. “While we struggle to find good jobs, senator Randy Hopper’s 26-year-old alleged mistress was given one in the Walker administration,” says the ad.
If the GOP loses the senate, union organizations will beat their chest all over America that union power is not to be trifled with; if unions lose, Scott Walker’s approach to public-sector collective bargaining will be vindicated. Millions of dollars are pouring in from out-of-state unions to try to make Wisconsin an example.