Politics & Policy

Wisconsin Countdown

Five things to watch in the Badger State

Madison, Wis. — As six Republican state senators fight for their political lives, first-term Republican governor Scott Walker’s fiscal agenda faces an uncertain future. Today’s half-dozen recall elections jeopardize the GOP’s senate majority. That bloc is the keystone to the governor’s power and was crucial in passing his collective-bargaining reforms and budget cuts earlier this year. Now, thanks to the petitioning union workers who forced the elections, Democrats have an opportunity to pick up the three seats they need to take control of the upper chamber, where Republicans currently hold a 19–14 advantage. Next week, two Democrats are up for recall, but after Sen. Dave Hansen, a Democrat, easily beat a Republican recall effort last month, both parties view the six GOP races as the most important contests of the summer.

In a Monday interview with talk-radio host Charlie Sykes, Walker said that Republicans have a fighting chance to keep their majority. He acknowledged that out of the six campaigns, there are two Republicans — Sen. Dan Kapanke and Sen. Randy Hopper — who are considered the most vulnerable. Kapanke, especially, has been written off by GOP insiders, since he represents a heavily Democratic district. Hopper, for his part, has been plagued by personal problems — his messy divorce and affair with a young Republican aide have been fodder for the state’s papers.

But there are two Republicans, Walker noted, who will probably win — Sen. Rob Cowles and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who are “looking reasonably good, although they’re all very tight.” That leaves two Republicans who must both win if the party is to keep control of the senate: “I think it will boil down to [Alberta] Darling and to Luther Olsen,” the governor predicted. In the final hours, Democrats and their union allies are knocking on doors and holding rallies. Republicans are doing the same, though with their brightly colored T-shirts and anti-Walker paraphernalia, the progressives draw more notice. As the polls close, keep an eye on these five things.


Republican operatives say early-voting numbers will be a crucial factor. Since these elections are in August, many voters are on vacation or traveling. The deadline to submit absentee ballots was on Friday. As Milwaukee Public Radio reports, “The state’s new voter ID law has also changed the absentee-voting process. Previously, in-person absentee voting continued until 5 p.m. on the Monday before the election.” Still, regardless of the change, early press reports show that such ballots are coming into local municipalities by the bushel.

On the ground, the Green Bay Press Gazette says that polling places were packed this morning in northeastern Wisconsin, with approximately 50 percent turnout expected in various municipalities and thousands of absentee ballots to count. Elsewhere across the state, the Appleton Post Crescent reports, that 50 percent number is holding. In Fond du Lac, where Senator Hopper is under fire, city clerk Sue Strands told the Fond du Lac Reporter that “her office has mailed out more than 900 absentee ballots and assisted over 500 walk-ins casting ballots at the counter.” Strands expects “voter turnout to be heavy, with as many as 80 percent of the city’s 21,670 registered voters casting ballots.”

With the flurry of activity and the high political stakes, both sides will likely cry foul if any or all of the races are decided by a narrow margin. In the Milwaukee area, Senator Darling has raised questions about whether the unions are giving “ribs for votes” in their outreach efforts and wonders whether her opponent, Democrat Sandy Pasch, has colluded with leftist groups. The state GOP has filed a complaint against Pasch on this front, raising questions about her ties to Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a pro-union organization. Liberals, of course, are firing back, alleging that Darling and Republicans are too cozy with conservative activists.

“Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, the agency that oversees elections, said it received several reports in recent weeks of unofficial absentee ballot applications potentially causing confusion among voters,” the Sheboygan Press reports. So it’s no surprise that both parties have legal teams lined up for recount battles. Absentee ballots, of course, can take days to fully tally, so expect a scramble to check and recheck their numbers beginning Wednesday morning.


Tonight’s recall elections will signal whether Walker is on the ropes or stronger than Big Labor imagines. He has kept a low profile throughout the race, appearing at private GOP fundraisers and eschewing stump speeches. He has done this for a couple of reasons: For one, according to GOP sources, state senators are not exactly clamoring to have him make a splash in their districts, and they’ve advised state operatives not to put the governor in hot spots whenever possible. Another reason is simply that he remains unpopular after the winter protests in Madison catapulted the state into the national spotlight. His approval rating, according to a July poll conducted by the University of Wisconsin, shows him with 37 percent support, a dismal number for any incumbent, let alone a first-term governor.

Not every Democrat this summer, however, has framed the recalls as a referendum on Walker. Even as his poll numbers sink, candidates such as Sandy Pasch are slamming Republicans for their role in the state budget, which axed public-education funds. Walker coauthored the budget, but in many state senate districts, caricaturing Walker is not seen as a perfect political strategy, since voters are focused on neighborhood issues, not on statewide politics or the national media conversation. Dane County, home to Madison and the nerve center for the Wisconsin Left, does not have a GOP state senator; that area’s influence remains large — Democrats organize from there — but not as powerful as it is during statewide elections, where large tallies in the capital region can outweigh solid GOP turnout in other parts of the state.

Beyond the possibility of his party’s losing its legislative majority, Walker looms over these races because of his own potential recall next year. Wisconsin state law says that voters must wait until an elected official is in office for one year before mounting a petition drive to oust him. In early 2012, Democrats would like to target Walker. If four Republicans can survive tonight, it will put the governor in a stronger position as Democrats mull their recall strategy. The results of these elections will also hold sway over former U.S. senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat, who is considering challenging Walker next year, should a recall move forward. If Republicans can win, GOP sources say Feingold could opt out of a Walker challenge and instead run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl. Should Democrats net three or more seats, Walker’s political career could be in immediate peril: Democrats will launch recall efforts with zeal, motivated by a summer stunner.


During the winter sit-ins at the state capitol, labor activists and college students sang union ditties deep into the night, especially “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie. Swarms of union workers joined them in marches below Governor Walker’s office. Tonight’s results will reveal whether the union forces are as strong as they are loud. All six Republican districts have been targeted by groups such as the AFL-CIO, Organizing for America, and We Are Wisconsin. In all, over $30 million has been spent on the recalls, with much of that total coming from labor groups that are itching to knock Walker and his allies.

Leftist special-interest groups see more than a state senate in play: If they can diminish Walker, other conservative governors will hesitate to reform state labor laws. Wisconsin Democrats also need a big win to get them motivated after 2010, when Walker won and Republican Ron Johnson, a first-time candidate, snagged a U.S. Senate seat. That was a shock to the Left, especially after President Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008. In 2012, Obama will almost undoubtedly need to win here again. Some Democrats wonder whether the recalls have siphoned valuable cash away from 2012 preparations, but most see the recalls as a must-win effort for the unions, who need to demonstrate their prowess to both supporters and foes — showing the country that the MSNBC specials and rah-rah demonstrations this winter were more than a showy spectacle for likeminded partisans.

As Politico reported earlier this week, Big Labor is attempting to lower expectations. “In our final days, we remain cautiously optimistic about our chances to take back the Senate. But predictions of victory at this point are beyond premature — they’re dangerous,” wrote We Are Wisconsin field director Kristen Crowell in a memo. “While we have solid research suggesting there are races where we might secure a second and third potential pick-up, none of these races except [Kapanke’s district] should be considered safe pick-ups.” Mike Tate, the state Democratic chair, citing internal polling, is also cautiously optimistic, but no one, especially in Big Labor, is ready to declare victory.


U.S. congressman Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms have been a major issue in numerous races, even though it is Walker’s budget-repair bill, which curbed collective bargaining for public employees, that is seen by most national observers as the key factor in the recalls. Democrats, coming off a special-election House win in New York, see Ryan’s congressional GOP budget as a potent political issue and have been relentless in tying the state Republican lawmakers to the House GOP budget, even though the senators have no say on federal programs. Senator Darling has seen one of her quotes — calling Ryan a “hero” — become a sticking point, much to her chagrin. Over a recent breakfast, she complained that her campaign against Pasch has become about “fear” and “scaring seniors.” And “seniors vote,” she added.

Darling and other Republicans will be watching returns closely to see if their Ryan ties affected the results. As with Walker, Ryan has also been mostly absent from the campaign trail this summer, quietly supporting his friends in the state senate but apparently reluctant, or perhaps simply too busy with congressional matters, to take to the trail. Senator Olsen thinks this tack could be a Democratic misfire. “I’m surprised, because there are a lot of people who think Paul Ryan should run for president. So if you’re hooking Paul Ryan to recall Republicans, that’s probably a good thing,” he told Fox News.

Senator Cowles is also taking the Ryan-themed attacks in stride. “Do [Democrats] think we should be involved in policies regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, also?” he asked in an interview with the Green Bay Press Gazette. “It shows how desperate this whole campaign is.” Tagging him as a Medicare enemy, he mused, is “like me blaming [the Democratic candidate] for national health care. Is that part of this debate? No. It’s ludicrous.” If Republicans can best their opponents on the Walker issue, they will need to be able to beat back the Democrats’ Ryan talking points in order to win. As Darling told me, reassuring seniors about Medicare, not about Walker, has become an important part of her campaign at the eleventh hour.


In April, conservative supreme-court justice David Prosser narrowly kept his seat on the state’s high bench. That spring election consumed Wisconsin and, like the Madison protests, drew national attention. In essence, Prosser’s race against liberal attorney JoAnne Kloppenburg was Round One for Walker’s administration. If Prosser had fallen, the supreme court would have flipped to the left and dealt a devastating political blow to the governor and Republicans just months after they ushered through their historic, if controversial, budgetary reforms. Bouncing off of Prosser’s win, which was officiated weeks after Election Day due to the razor-thin margin of victory, Republicans moved toward the recall elections with confidence.

Indeed, if Republicans can win where Prosser won, they stand a good chance of holding on to their seats. Senator Hopper, for instance, who has struggled to put personal troubles behind him, is hoping that Prosser’s winning totals in Winnebago and Fond du Lac counties are echoed in tonight’s returns. But the Prosser effect is more than an electoral map. Prosser also helped Republican get prepped for recounts, which can be requested by either side if things are close. Prosser, at first, was thought to have lost the race, only to see his tally rise hours later when thousands of uncounted votes were discovered in Waukesha County. Both parties want to avoid such an explosive turn of events, but in Wisconsin, one never knows — and Republican state operatives say they’re ready for anything.

More broadly, Republicans like to say that Prosser’s win was the beginning of a trend in Wisconsin, a fight back by the silent majority, not an anomaly. Prosser knew back in April that his race would carry consequences far beyond his chambers. On the trail, he noted that his race was fast becoming a national sensation, even though it was a state race and should have remained focused on state issues and problems. “Sometimes I feel like David against the whole empire of the Wisconsin Left, and the Left from other parts of the country who are coming into this state to try to determine this race,” he said in a speech in Green Lake County. You can be sure that tonight, as the clock ticks and votes are counted, six Wisconsin Republicans empathize with that sentiment as they cross their fingers.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.


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