Madison, Wis. — For Wisconsin progressives, the winter protests in the capitol were just the beginning. On Tuesday, six Republican state senators could be ousted from office for supporting first-term Republican governor Scott Walker, whose fiscal reforms have shocked the state bureaucracy and public-sector unions. If Democrats pick up three seats, they will take control of the upper chamber, which currently has a 19–14 Republican majority. The August elections were spurred by labor activists who collected enough signatures earlier this year to force the state to hold recall votes. Since then, more than $30 million has been poured into the contests, which both parties view as a proxy fight over Walker’s record in the run-up to the 2012 cycle.
Republicans are worried. Though conservative justice David Prosser won a rocky supreme court campaign earlier in the year, Walker’s poll numbers are anemic. Worse, the August election could feature low turnout from Republicans, who may not be as engaged in summer politicking as left-wing voters. To gin up the Right, the Tea Party Express has been making stops around the state, drawing hundreds to picnic-style rallies. But no one is sure how much that will help. Outside groups of all stripes have been crowding television screens and telephone lines, which many voters find exhausting following months of brutal political battles in the Badger State.
“This remains ground zero,” says Sal Russo, the group’s chief strategist. “The Left thinks that if they can push back and change who’s in office, then Republicans will begin to back off in Madison and become timid.” For the moment, Democrats appear to have momentum. State senator Dave Hansen, a Democrat, beat a recall in July, an ominous sign for Republicans, who must defend half-a-dozen seats. Below is a look at the races which could hold Walker’s political future in the balance.
Sen. Alberta Darling (R.) vs. Rep. Sandy Pasch (D.) Incumbent Republican Alberta Darling, a 67-year-old former teacher and art-museum director, was first elected to the state senate in 1992. She represents District 8, a cluster of suburban homes and shopping malls north of Milwaukee. She faces Democrat Sandy Pasch, a nurse and two-term state representative. This race has been called the “crown jewel” of the recall effort by Mike Tate, the Democratic state chairman, for good reason: Darling is one of Walker’s closest allies in the chamber, the co-chairman of budget-writing committee, and a high-profile supporter of GOP congressman Paul Ryan, who represents Janesville to the south. Democrats have railed against Darling’s Ryan ties in recent weeks, tagging her as someone who would end Medicare — even though she is a state lawmaker with no say over the issue.
Over breakfast in Mequon on Saturday, Darling said the Democrats’ campaign has become “about fear” and “scaring seniors.” Still, she sees hope. In 2008, for example, the Year of Obama, she won reelection in her socially moderate, fiscally conservative district — a district Obama carried. A late-July Public Policy Polling survey showed Darling up by five points, 52 percent to 47 percent, among likely voters. GOP insiders predict that it will be close: Internal polling shows Darling a couple points ahead, but things are fluid and special-interest dollars, especially in the final hours, could tip the election. Some $8 million has already been funneled into the district, by the parties and by outside groups, making this race the priciest recall contest. Darling, for her part, has shown fundraising prowess under fire, pulling in more than $1 million this summer, compared with Pasch’s $600,000-plus haul.
Darling’s team also sees hints of optimism from the Prosser race: The conservative judge carried the district on his way to a narrow statewide victory in April, lifting the spirits of local Republicans and generating momentum for the Darling campaign, which relies upon many of the same organizers and activists. Darling, GOP sources add, is in a position to surprise, especially since she began campaigning months before many of her counterparts and recognized early that she could be in trouble. She enlisted Andrew Davis, the state party’s political director during Walker’s 2010 run, to manage her campaign, and has been hitting Pasch hard on her tax-and-spend record and on her comfy relations with the labor activists who besieged Madison earlier this year. The state GOP recently filed a complaint against Pasch for allegedly colluding with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a pro-union group.