August 8, 2011

Democrats ready to wage state Senate recall war in Wisconsin

After months of partisan turmoil solved not all that much in Washington, the political world will turn its attention to Wisconsin this week in search of some clarity.

The Badger State will hold six recall elections for state senators on Tuesday, the final battle of a war between Gov. Scott Walker (R) and organized labor that began months ago. Walker’s decision to strip public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining right set off a national firestorm — with the labor movement promising retribution for legislators who voted in favor of the proposal.

Democrats hope Tuesday will provide that retribution as they seek to retake control of the state Senate and give the party a bit of a boost nationally.

“I think it’s a chance to disrupt the overall news arc, which is horrific particularly for [President] Obama,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based in Madison, Wis.

Democrats have targeted six Republican state senators for recall, while two of their own face recall fights. Republicans have a 19-14 majority in the chamber, so to seize control, Democrats must win three GOP-held seats and lose none of their own.

Most analysts consider Sen. Dan Kapanke (R) the most endangered, because his district gave Obama more than 60 percent of the vote in 2008. Many Democrats are counting that seat as a pickup. Sen. Randy Hopper (R) also faces a tough race in a Democratic-leaning district. Sens. Luther Olsen and Alberta Darling, both Republicans, are vulnerable, too, and their races are likely to decide whether Democrats get to the majority on Tuesday.

Observers on both sides acknowledge the possibility that Democrats could win the majority by a seat only to lose it again on Aug. 16, when Sen. Jim Holperin — one of the two Democrats targeted by Republicans — faces his recall election.

The practical importance of controlling the state Senate is far outweighed by the symbolic message-sending that both parties hope to do in the balloting.

Tens of millions of dollars have poured into the state — some experts estimate that more than $30 million has been spent — as every interest group on either side of the aisle is trying to make its voice heard before the vote.

Democrats — and especially organized labor groups — have cast the Wisconsin recall elections as a sign that they retain significant political power and are more than willing to fight when they think Republicans have overreached.

“Wisconsin is something of a referendum on the uncompromising extremism of the Republicans and the tea party,” said pollster Mark Mellman, who is involved in Democratic efforts in the state. “This is the first time the GOP will find out whether there is an electoral price to pay for their adamant refusal to compromise on their extreme agenda.”

Democrats hope to use a state Senate takeover to build momentum for an effort to recall the governor. Walker, who was elected last year, must serve for one year before he is eligible to be recalled.

Republicans, who acknowledge they are playing defense in Wisconsin, consider anything short of losing the state Senate majority a victory — and a sign that national Democratic groups are out of touch with average voters.

Even if they do come up short, Republican State Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski, who is monitoring the Wisconsin races, insists that the impact would be isolated.

“On a state level across the country, there will be little effect at this point,” he said. “Most states are done or almost done with their budgets. The 2011 state legislative elections look a lot like the 2010 elections so far: net gains [for Republicans] in chambers picked up and net gains in seats.”

Although the spin game about “what it all means” is well underway, strategists for both parties acknowledge that they are in uncharted water when it comes to who will vote — given the unprecedented nature of the elections and the fact that they come in the middle of many people’s summer vacations.

“Anyone who makes any prediction on Tuesday’s result with extreme confidence needs to be sat down and have the concept of knowns and unknowns explained to them,” said Kelly Steele, spokesman for We Are Wisconsin, a Democratic-aligned group.