Politics & Policy

Beating the Wisconsin Recall

Once left for dead, state senator Randy Hopper gains momentum.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#His charm is infectious. He is a handsome, fit man of 45 with a chin like Buzz Lightyear’s, white hair, and fashionable, dark-rimmed glasses. He takes a break from walking the neighborhood to conduct an interview with a local television station. The reporter points out that Jessica King is touring the district with recently defeated former U.S. senator Russ Feingold today. “I hope they’re in Fond du Lac,” quips Hopper.

“This isn’t America,” says one Tshirt-and-boxer-wearing man at his doorstep, expressing disgust at the ad campaign being run against Hopper. Others indicate their full support; very few lack an opinion on the race. If anyone brings up the personal-attack ads, Hopper mentions that the unions are running them because they don’t want to talk about the progress that has been made due to the new collective-bargaining law. He mentions that the Fond du Lac school district was recently able to close a $4 million budget deficit and replace all 43 retiring teachers without any budget cuts. And those are the achievements he thinks people should be talking about.

#ad#At one point, an older man appears at his doorstep and listens to Hopper ask him for his support. “You will never, ever have it,” the man shoots back, claiming that Hopper’s business doesn’t pay income taxes. (Hopper answers that he paid $100,000 last year.) As the senator tries to politely extricate himself from the exchange, the man turns his back and begins to walk away. “Go find yourself another 26-year-old,” the man yells.

Hopper shrugs and says he learned to deal with difficult people back in college, when he worked at Disney World for a summer. He took an internship that taught college students the Disney business model by making them work in the park for four days a week. He primarily worked as a lifeguard, but roomed with two other students — one who had to dress as one of the Pirates of the Caribbean and one who wore an Aristocat costume.

He takes a break from knocking on doors and sits down for lunch at Gilley’s frozen-custard stand on Main Street in Fond du Lac. As he settles into his seat, other lunch patrons fix their eyes on him; a recent poll showed he had over 90 percent name identification in his district — amazing for a state senator in office for three years.

As he eats, he talks about the ups and downs of the campaign. He proudly produces pictures from his participation in the Eldorado Hog Wrestle, an event in which a team of four has to grab a giant, muddy pig and put it on an elevated stand. Team Hopper accomplished this quintessentially Wisconsin task in 39 seconds.

He mentions the nationwide attention his campaign has gotten. Perhaps his most entertaining interview, he says, was with a Japanese reporter who spoke very little English. The reporter, as a complete outsider to American politics, had a hard time understanding why Hopper was being subject to a recall. “So you get elected and pass a law that your governor agrees with, and you get pulled out of office for that?” he remembers the reporter asking. “When you put it that way, it does sound pretty confusing,” says Hopper’s campaign manager, Sean Stephenson.

Hopper finishes lunch by explaining why he’s going to win. “Anybody that thinks I’m just going to lie down doesn’t know me,” he says. I ask him if he considers himself the “comeback kid.”

Hopper smiles. “I never went anywhere,” he answers.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.