August 9, 2011

Wisconsin recall elections could tip state Senate balance

Six months after protests and counter-protests briefly made Madison the epicenter of American politics, Tuesday is a day of reckoning for six Republican state senators in Wisconsin.

The legislators represent the first targets of Democrats outraged by Gov. Scott Walker’s push to curtail the collective bargaining rights of most state employees. Democrats need to win at least three of the six races in order to take control of the narrowly divided chamber. If they do, Democrats will almost certainly claim momentum toward their budding efforts to recall Walker.

But even if Democrats do wrestle control of the state Senate away, they could just as easily lose the chamber right back a week later, when two more Democratic state senators face their own recalls, months after they fled the state in an attempt to block Walker’s legislative push.

“We’re in uncharted waters here,” said Bill McCoshen, a Republican lobbyist and former Tommy Thompson strategist. “We’ve never had more than one person recalled in the history of the state, and now we’ve got six races going on the same day. It’s extraordinary.”

Rocking the boat has been millions of dollars in TV spending that is typical of federal races in the national spotlight, but unheard of for a state-level legislative contest. Political media trackers estimate more than $30 million has been spent on the recalls, and ad buy tracking data obtained by POLITICO indicates that the spending has been roughly divided evenly between Democratic- and Republican-leaning groups and their candidates.

“It’s an unprecedented amount of money that’s being spent here,” McCoshen said.

In addition to more than $4 million spent by the candidates themselves, more than 10 outside groups have showered the local airwaves with TV money, including the conservative Club for Growth, Democratic-leaning We Are Wisconsin, the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“There’s never been a set of state legislative contests that have generated the national interest this has,” said prominent Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is working for the state Senate Democrats. “Wisconsin’s really been a focal point for looking at and reacting to the extremism of this new Republican Party that’s been taken over by the far right.”

Each side is hoping its turnout operation will carry it over the top.

“We’re bracing for massive turnout,” GOP state Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald told POLITICO. “Some clerks are estimating presidential-level turnout, which is amazing.”

Strategists on both sides caution that polling can only be so precise for a rare set of recall elections in which voter turnout is almost impossible to predict.

“Turnout is the whole deal,” Mellman said. “No one knows for certain and nobody knows whether these polls are remotely accurate because you’ve never had six people up for election in the middle of August in the history of the state. So it will all come down to turnout. whichever side does a better job of identifying, motivating, and getting its voters out to the polls will win.”

“Many people have stopped paying attention to the fliers and the ads on TV. It’s too much,” said state Rep. Sandy Pasch, the Democratic challenger taking on Darling.

And if Democrats win the chamber Tuesday, both sides are bracing for an astronomical spending binge ahead of next Tuesday, when Democratic state Sens. Jim Holperin and Robert Wirch face their own recalls.

“We’ve already seen $30 million here. If the chamber flips on Tuesday, we could see another $4 million just spent in that next week. “McCoshen said. “Anyone who says they know what will happen is simply not telling the truth, because there’s just no precedent for this.”

But despite the volatility of this new political ground, there is surprisingly widespread agreement among operatives on both sides about the lay of the land just hours before polls open:

— La Crosse state Sen. Dan Kapanke is the Republican most likely heading toward defeat. His Democratic challenger, state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, holds healthy leads in both public and private polls. Kapanke represents an increasingly blue district in southwest Wisconsin, lost a congressional bid last fall and has long been pegged as the most vulnerable recall target.

— State Sens. Robert Cowles and Sheila Harsdorf are the Republicans most likely to survive. Cowles represents a GOP-friendly Green Bay district that went handily for state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in the April election that turned into a warm-up for both parties’ political machines. Harsdorf, of the Milwaukee-area River Falls village, benefited from significant early spending by the Club for Growth, which quickly defined Democratic challenger Shelly Moore as a hardcore union activist.

— State Sens. Alberta Darling, Luther Olsen and Randy Hopper occupy the swing seats that will ultimately decide which party controls the chamber. Hopper was considered a goner when reports surfaced that he cheated on his wife with a staffer, but he has since made up some ground in the GOP-leaning district. Darling’s suburban Milwaukee 8th District, where the candidates and outside groups have broken spending records, and Olsen’s 14th District, where the incumbent has never drawn a serious challenge, are the fiercest battlegrounds. “This thing will be won or lost in 8 or 14,” RNC political director Rick Wiley told POLITICO.