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.
Status: Toss up
Sen. Luther Olsen (R.) vs. Rep. Fred Clark (D.)
Sen. Luther Olsen, a 60-year-old Republican, has coasted for decades. Since he was first elected to the state legislature in 1994, he has not faced a Democratic opponent. The summer recall has forced Olsen, for the first time in his career, to hit the trail hard, wondering whether his political career is in jeopardy. Rep. Fred Clark, a Democrat, has mounted a strong challenge. A mid-July Mellman Group poll showed Clark pulling 45 percent to Olsen’s 43 percent. A Daily Kos poll the following week showed Clark with a similar two-point lead. For Olsen, who represents the conservative, rural towns near Ripon in central Wisconsin, this must be quite a shock.
Clark, who was carried into office by the Obama wave in 2008 and narrowly won reelection in 2010, has blasted Olsen, a longtime school-board leader, for cutting education funds in the inaugural Walker budget, knocking the incumbent on his signature issue. “They’re beating him up because he has been chairman of the education committee, and they’re trying to make Olsen look like he’s anti-education,” observed GOP state Sen. Mike Ellis to the Appleton Post Crescent. Olsen, meanwhile, has not been a quick draw in response, working from light campaign coffers. Clark has raised approximately $300,000; Olsen has pulled in less than $200,000. If Clark can stir his base in the southwestern slice of the district to the polls, he stands a real chance of toppling Olsen, who in any other year would likely win with ease.
Outside groups, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan tracking group, have ladled over $5.5 million into the race. Big political names, such as U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D., Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), have also weighed in, making stump stops in recent weeks. Yet even if Clark is boosted by his labor friends, he may be dogged by character questions. Earlier in the campaign, for instance, he had to apologize to a local woman for saying after she hung up on him that he “feels like calling her back and smacking her around.” His driving record — he has accrued numerous speeding tickets and hit a bicyclist in 2009 — has been spotlighted by third-party ads. Those stumbles won’t help Clark, to be sure, but they do hint at a growing GOP desperation about Olsen, whom many Republicans view as a solid legislator but rusty politician.
Status: Leans Democrat
Sen. Randy Hopper (R.) vs. Jessica King (D.)
Sen. Randy Hopper, a radio-station owner from Fond du Lac, quickly became one of the state GOP’s rising stars after he was first elected in 2008. That star, however, tumbled after his divorce became fodder for the Wisconsin press. For months, reporters and Democrats have hounded him about his affair with a 26-year-old Republican staffer. Those personal issues, plus brewing anti-Walker sentiment in his district, which surrounds the western banks of Lake Winnebago in south-central Wisconsin, could cut his first term short. Hopper faces Democrat Jessica King, the deputy mayor of Oshkosh, who lost to Hopper by 163 votes three years ago. Recent polling pegs the race as a dead heat: An August survey by Magellan Strategies shows King ahead by a couple points, 50 percent to 47.5 percent.
In an interview over the weekend, Hopper acknowledged that he has an uphill climb, but he pointed to his 2008 race as an example of how he has overcome tough odds before. Even in a year when Obama swept his district, he was able to build a coalition of small-business owners and fiscal conservatives to eke out a victory. That bloc will be harder to hold together on Tuesday, especially since Hopper’s district features thousands of state employees, many of whom are angry with Walker. The district has “traditionally leaned Republican,” reports WisPolitics.com, but with numerous state prisons housed in the region, plus thousands of teachers, the potential for a Democratic uprising is strong.
Walker, who has kept a low profile throughout much of the recall process, has remained firmly in Hopper’s camp, hosting a fundraiser for the embattled Republican. Hopper, as an entrepreneur with a salesman’s savvy, has been a strong Walker ally in the Senate. For Hopper, that partnership is a mixed blessing: It has helped him to build a reputation as an economic leader, but it has also enabled King to cast him as Walker’s crony, which in a swing district could be costly. In the final hours, King will likely be lifted by a strong ground game, since many Democrats have tagged Hopper’s seat as a must-win and sent legions of volunteers and union workers to Fond du Lac neighborhoods. Hopper, a door-knocking machine, has been hustling so hard that he lost ten pounds last month. But it may not be enough.
Status: Leans Democrat
Sen. Dan Kapanke (R.) vs. Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D.)
According to a recent University of Wisconsin poll, 59 percent of state voters disapprove of Walker’s job performance. In a Democratic-leaning district like the one represented by Republican senator Dan Kapanke, that spells trouble. GOP strategists tell me that Kapanke is the most vulnerable of the six Republicans up for reelection. In the district, which surrounds La Crosse near the Minnesota border, Rep. Jennifer Shilling, a Democrat, has been able tie Kapanke to Walker and rally upset liberals to her side. At the pair’s only debate, she called Kapanke a “rubber stamp” for the Walker administration, which she claimed “no longer seems to care about democracy.”
Kapanke has raised significant money to combat Shilling, raking in over $800,000 compared with Shilling’s near-$300,000 haul. Kapanke, in one of his main ads, has defended his support for Walker’s budget-repair bill, calling the recalls an example of political “craziness” over “one vote.” But the polls have not been kind, even as he launches counterattacks. Republican operatives say he has not moved in internal polling, and public figures are also dismal. In a recent Public Policy Polling survey, Shilling leads Kapanke by 14 points, 56 percent to 42 percent, with only 3 percent undecided. Any hope for an eleventh-hour resurgence has been clouded by the fact that Obama won the district handily in 2008, carrying 61 percent of the vote. Indeed, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, Kapanke quipped at a GOP meeting that Republicans better hope that state workers are “kind of sleeping” on Tuesday.
With a sparse tea-party presence in the district, Kapanke has struggled to generate enthusiasm among his conservative base. Recent ethics charges have not helped his cause. While he has been cleared of wrongdoing by state officials, he was dogged for months about potential legal problems after he was accused of improperly mixing chartable funds with his small business, the La Crosse Loggers, a baseball team. All of this appears to have made him a bit weary, especially as lefty politicos canvass his district. “They’ve landed in western Wisconsin and maybe in the other districts as well,” he complained in a chat with Milwaukee Public Radio. “The president has his fingers all over these recalls, and I’m not so sure residents of this great state appreciate Washington getting involved here.” That may be, but unless Kapanke can energize conservatives in a similar manner, he may be packing his Madison office quite soon.
Status: Democrat favored
Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R.) vs. Shelly Moore (D.)
When Morgan Freeman becomes a contentious issue in a state-senate campaign, you know it’s a unique year. The famous Hollywood actor, or at least his gravelly words, bubbled up in northwestern Wisconsin earlier this summer when an outside conservative group used a voice that sounded like the celebrity in a video spot. The ad, which was critical of Democrat Shelly Moore, a teacher who is challenging incumbent GOP state senator Sheila Harsdorf, prompted Freeman’s publicist to issue a disclaimer, telling reporters that no, the star of The Shawshank Redemption was not wading into Wisconsin politics. The strange episode was hardly unusual for this prickly, no-holds-barred recall contest.
Harsdorf was leading in the polls in June, when Public Policy Polling showed her up by five points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Since then, Moore has risen, riding Walker’s poor poll numbers into closer contention. A Mellman Group poll in late July showed her pulling within the margin of error, trailing Harsdorf by three points. Since Harsdorf is not facing a campaign-tested legislator, like many of her fellow Republicans, GOP sources say she stands a decent chance of keeping her seat. She won a close election in 2000 and was easily reelected in 2004 and 2008. Also in her favor is name recognition — her brother is a well-known former state lawmaker — and money. Harsdorf has collected over $400,000, approximately $100,000 more than Moore. Millions, of course, are being spent by outside groups.
On the trail, Harsdorf has championed her farming roots, hoping to cast herself in stark contrast with Moore, whose base consists of irate public-school teachers such as herself. During the Madison protests, Moore walked arm-in-arm with educators and spoke out against Walker. At one rally, captured on video and featured in a Club for Growth ad, she uses hyperbolic language to make her case to the progressive, fist-pumping masses: “We breathe union,” she said to cheers. That Hoffa-style rhetoric has been tempered this summer, with Moore striking a softer tone, but her negatives remain high. By Tuesday night, look for this one to be close. Early voting has been strong, with thousands of absentee ballots already submitted, indicating high turnout. Walker won this district in 2010, but liberal attorney JoAnne Kloppenburg performed well here in the spring supreme court race, which gives Democrats more than enough reason to show up.
Status: Toss Up
Sen. Rob Cowles (R.) vs. Nancy Nusbaum (D.)
GOP sources see Sen. Rob Cowles, a Green Bay–area Republican, as one of the more likely survivors in Tuesday’s recalls, but no one is ready to declare victory. Cowles faces Democrat Nancy Nusbaum, a former mayor and Brown County executive, who has mounted a formidable challenge. Polls show the pair locked in a tight race. Public Policy Polling in late July had Cowles ahead by four points, 51 percent to 47 percent, but statistically, that’s almost a tie. “It’s a right-leaning district that Cowles has held for almost three decades,” wrote the Green Bay Press-Gazette in its PPP analysis. “Very few voters have changed their opinion of Walker. Compared to other parts of the state where Walker’s approval rating has diminished significantly, 50 percent of voters still have a favorable opinion.”
Cowles is no political newcomer and has closed strong in the past. He has been active — and winning — in state politics since he was first elected to the state legislature in 1982. He has been in the state senate since the later Reagan years. Nusbaum, a retired local official, is one of the more able candidates running this week. But she is by no means perfect. She has lost two congressional races: in 1994 as a Republican and in 2006 as a Democrat. Cowles, for what it’s worth, also has an effective get-out-the-vote operation, according to one party official. The candidate underscored this reputation on Sunday, speaking to volunteers. “I was at four events yesterday, a typical day for me is four, five maybe even six events if I have enough energy,” he said, according to ABC-2 News.
Cowles’s experience should be a boon to him on Election Day. Local newspapers are talking up this angle in editorials, urging voters to be wary of tossing out a longtime GOP leader. “The Cowles decision was relatively easy,” the Appleton Post Crescent editorialized in its endorsement. “He has a well-deserved reputation as a deficit hawk, as concerned about the state’s persistent structural deficit as we are.” Expect Cowles to be a GOP success story if this narrative settles in. The final days have also been relatively quiet, compared to the raucous campaigns elsewhere. Nusbaum’s mother died on Friday, which has made both sides a little more hesitant to take potshots.
Status: Leans Republican
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Tyler O’Neil, a National Review intern in Washington, contributed reporting.