As Alberta Darling takes a chair at the Wooden Goose Café, Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” softly plays on the kitchen stereo. The pony-tailed waitress, pen in hand, stands ready to take our order. But before Darling puts a napkin on her lap, an elderly man with ancient hands approaches, places a palm on her shoulder, and says, “You’re the strongest woman I know.” She thanks him. A second later, she scans the room and spies numerous retirees, early risers breaking their fast on over-easy eggs and black coffee. So she gets up and makes the rounds, moving from table to table in a bright blue T-shirt emblazoned with her name and Old Glory. Several minutes later, we settle back in. “It’s all about the ground game,” she says.
Unlike most of the patrons, Darling, a 67-year-old Republican state senator, will not be hitting the links or relaxing with a paperback after breakfast. Instead, she will be knocking on doors, striding purposefully up long driveways in this suburban Milwaukee district, with crisp, star-spangled pamphlets under her arm. Darling has been in close races before, but Tuesday’s recall elections in the Badger State are different from the usual political scrums. Labor activists have targeted her and five GOP colleagues, enraged at the senators’ support of first-term Republican governor Scott Walker, who famously curbed state spending and collective bargaining for public employees earlier this year. If Democrats can win three of the six contests, they will take control of the upper chamber, which currently has a 19–14 Republican majority.
The prospect has progressives salivating. In recent weeks, Darling has become their number-one target. Her socially moderate, fiscally conservative district is considered a wildcard by most political analysts and a must-win race for Democrats. As one GOP insider puts it, “If Darling wins, it will be very hard for them to find their way to three seats.” Mike Tate, the Democratic state-party chairman, recently called it the “crown jewel” of the recalls. Outside groups, from Organizing for America to Tea Party Express, have encouraged activists to make their way to Thiensville and Glendale, emphasizing that the fate of Walker’s agenda could be determined here. Over $8 million has poured in, making the race the state’s priciest campaign this summer.
Darling faces a tough challenger in Democrat Sandy Pasch, a nurse and two-term state representative. Pasch has ably made the race more than a referendum on Walker’s policies, tying Darling to every possible Republican bogeyman, most notably Rep. Paul Ryan, who represents Janesville to the south and authored the congressional GOP’s budget. Ryan’s Medicare reforms have become fodder for Democrats in House races across the country, and in Wisconsin, they are being used against Darling, a state lawmaker with no say over federal entitlements. Darling has fought back at this tack for months, swatting away the anti-Ryan chatter — she calls him a “hero” — and underscoring, not abandoning, her work with the unpopular governor.
Not that she had much of a choice. As the co-chair of the state senate’s budget-writing committee, Darling is the first to acknowledge that she, more than any of the other Republicans running, is directly responsible for many of the fiscal reforms coming out of Madison. While she is not a fan of every aspect of Walker’s budget, she is his most high-profile ally in the senate. All of this has made her campaign a testing ground for Walker’s political future and the keystone to the senate’s balance of power. If she falls, and the state-senate GOP’s majority collapses, the chances for Republicans to axe the capital’s entrenched, union-heavy bureaucracy will be jeopardized. Still, Darling tells me that she can handle the heat, and that she can win despite the Democrats’ brash tactics. She takes a bite of hearty bacon, almost to prove the point. “I have got to load up,” she says, talking about her busy schedule.