Magazine | September 19, 2011, Issue

Less-Than-Total Recall

Wisconsin’s GOP senate withstands a Democratic assault, barely

Controlling expectations is an invaluable weapon in a campaign manager’s arsenal. Before a debate, you make it sound like your candidate barely speaks English, so that when he reaches a level of adequacy, it appears as if he were Benjamin Disraeli. You downplay your candidate’s chances in a presidential caucus, so when he emerges from Iowa having finished fifth out of eight, you can boast about his “momentum.”

Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Mike Tate doesn’t care much for managing expectations. Displaying youthful hubris befitting his 32 years, Tate boldly declared that Democrats would win the three state-senate recall elections they needed to retake control of the Wisconsin senate on August 9. A week before the elections, Tate pumped up poll numbers showing Democrats leading in three races and a “dead heat” in the other three. “Independents are moving towards the Democratic candidates in strong numbers,” he told a group of national reporters. Every race, he said, is “eminently winnable.” The day before the elections, Madison’s Fred Risser, America’s longest-serving state legislator, predicted the Democrats would sweep all six contests.

Yet on election night, Democrats fell short of their lofty expectations, winning only two contests. A week later, Democrats dodged further disaster, retaining two of their own incumbents in recall elections. They had previously managed to keep another incumbent as well.

The recall elections were an especially strong rebuff to the public-sector labor unions, which spent $15–20 million trying to boot Republican senators from office. In total, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, $35 million was spent on the recall races, well outpacing the estimated $19.3 million spent on all 115 legislative races last November.

Before the recall elections, Democrats could be forgiven for their tumescence. Tate’s mind was filled with memories of thousands of angry state employees charging the capitol in Madison early this year, banging drums and demanding protection of their “rights.” The capitol occupation served as a rebuke to the newly minted governor, Scott Walker, who had introduced legislation dramatically scaling back the right of public workers to bargain collectively, and requiring public employees to begin paying into their own pensions.

The momentum generated by these demonstrations led to the collection of signatures to recall from office six Republican state senators, each of whom was last elected in 2008. In Wisconsin, around 16,000 signatures — roughly 10 percent of a typical district’s population — are required to subject a state senator to a recall election. Even the most GOP-heavy districts contain that many Democrats, and vice versa. Once a recall is in progress, a candidate needs to collect 400 signatures to get on the ballot against the incumbent.

Eighty-five years ago, when an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution authorizing the recall procedure was passed, some foresaw an event like this. In October 1926, Manitowoc attorney I. J. Nash wrote an op-ed predicting that such a provision would make Wisconsin the “laughingstock of the country.” Nash added that a recall proceeding is “slow, conducted with passion, expensive, sets neighbor against neighbor, is unaccompanied by sworn or other competent evidence, and convinces few that justice has been served.”

The recall provision was passed with judges, not state legislators or governors, in mind. Back then, most state officials served two-year terms, and the law allows recalls only after the first year of service; it wouldn’t have made sense to recall a politician who faced reelection in less than a year anyway. It wasn’t until 1967 that terms were extended so that governors, lieutenant governors, attorneys general, and secretaries of state serve for four years. It took 70 years for the first state elected official to be recalled, in 1996.

On Oct. 31, 1926, the Milwaukee Journal editorialized against the amendment, saying: “It threatens every judge with recall at any time. Not in the case of bad conduct; he can be removed for bad conduct under the present laws. It threatens his removal if he so far offends a sentiment that a fourth of the voters rush to sign a petition. Or he can be recalled if he offends interests able to spend a great deal of money to get what they want.”

In 2011, the unions were ready to spend a great deal of money to garner the scalps of GOP senators Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Dan Kapanke, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, and Rob Cowles. Their districts represented a combined 288 consecutive years of Republican representation; Olsen’s district had been represented by a Republican since 1896, Hopper’s since 1936.

Before this year, in the history of the state, two state legislators had been successfully recalled; this year, a total of nine faced challenges.

#page#One of the GOP’s best chances to take down a Democrat came in Green Bay, where state representative John Nygren was set to take on incumbent senate “fleebagger” Dave Hansen (earlier in the year, he had left the state with fellow Democrats to deny the Republicans a quorum). Yet Nygren was able to collect only 398 valid signatures — two short of the 400 needed to make it to the ballot. Nygren’s failure to qualify ended the chance for a GOP pickup in Green Bay, as the remaining Republican candidate for Hansen’s seat, David VanderLeest, had been arrested for domestic violence several times and publicly called his wife “spiteful” and an alcoholic during the campaign. (After weeks of crowing about what a ludicrous candidate VanderLeest was, Democrats acted as if Hansen’s victory signaled unstoppable momentum for the union movement.)

But the real action took place in the six GOP-incumbent recalls. A few of the senators facing removal had not been forced to run serious campaigns for years. Rob Cowles, who represents a district near Green Bay and was first elected to the senate in a 1987 special election, hadn’t been credibly challenged since the Clinton administration. The only time Sen. Luther Olsen faced a challenge was in 2004, the year of his first election; one of his two primary opponents ran because Olsen had allegedly slept with his wife. (This is what is considered in political circles to be a “single-issue candidate.”)

Although Walker’s collective-bargaining bill had provided the impetus for the recall efforts, nary a word was heard about union “rights” once the campaigns started. Television ad after television ad — run by the unions — criticized Republicans for “cutting $800 million from schools,” or for their “devastating cuts” to human services. Sens. Alberta Darling and Sheila Harsdorf were specifically targeted by unions for wanting to “end Medicare”: a program over which, as state senators, they have absolutely no control.

In running millions of dollars’ worth of ads, public unions precisely demonstrated Walker’s point: The warm bodies of state employees merely serve as conduits through which to shift funds from taxpayers to unions — which, in turn, shovel the money into Democratic campaigns, and then “negotiate” compensation packages with the very people they helped elect. The arrangement couldn’t be more cozy if they all held their contract talks in a sleeping bag.

When the votes were finally counted, Democrats were able to knock off only Dan Kapanke, who lived in a district that Barack Obama had won by 24 percentage points, and Randy Hopper, who had earned the sobriquet “Bed Hopper” when news leaked out of his affair with a 25-year-old capitol staffer. (Hopper contends that he and his wife had been separated for a year by that time, and he filed for divorce in August of 2010.) Neither race could plausibly be considered a referendum on Walker’s collective-bargaining law. Basically, the unions spent $15–20 million teaching aspiring Wisconsin senators that it’s probably a bad idea to cheat on your wife.

Furthermore, GOP observers contend that Hopper, who lost by 2 percentage points, wouldn’t have lost had John Nygren garnered the two more nomination signatures he needed to make it onto the ballot against Dave Hansen. If an active Nygren–Hansen campaign had been underway in the same media market, unions wouldn’t have been able to turn their money blowtorch on Hopper in the singular way they did.

In fact, if the Republican recall elections had actually been a referendum on collective bargaining, the unions wouldn’t be claiming victory. While they continue to tout their “historic” two-seat pickup, other indicators show the public moving strongly against labor. Cowles destroyed his Democratic opponent by a 57–42 margin. Harsdorf and Darling both surpassed their 2008 victory spreads.

By any standard that was proposed before the elections by the Democrats themselves, the recall attempt was a disappointment. Yet Republicans who retreat into complacency may be surprised come January, when recall proceedings can begin against the senate’s GOP class of 2010, who will have been in office for the requisite one year. The districts defended in August were home to GOP-leaning seats held by Republicans. The districts threatened by an early-2012 recall will be home to Democratic-leaning seats held by Republicans. And the Democrats need to win only one to flip the senate back to their side.

Ditto for a possible recall against Gov. Scott Walker. While taking Walker down would be difficult, the national public-employee unions have nothing to lose by trying (except another $20 million or so) — and Walker’s head would make for a nice trophy over their mantle.

Still, Wisconsin Democrats remain befuddled at their recent string of losses. They sincerely believed that for every guy dressed in a gorilla suit banging on a drum at the capitol, they would have hundreds of votes in the recall elections. But if they continue to subject Wisconsinites to an endless string of obnoxious campaigns, they will please only their most militant followers.

– Mr. Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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