Wisconsin Republicans retained control of the state Senate with victories in four out of six recall elections Tuesday, one of which remained see-saw until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
The GOP wins, in multimillion-dollar contests that had commanded national attention, turned back Democratic attempts to blunt the agenda of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Republican incumbents Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, and Robert Cowles survived the recalls. Democrats took two seats, cutting the Republican margin in the Senate to 17-16. Rep. Jennifer Shilling defeated Sen. Dan Kapanke, and Rep. Jessica King beat Sen. Randy Hopper.
The results represent a victory for Walker, 43, who used his legislative majorities to place collective-bargaining curbs on most public employee unions in March, sparking weeks of protests. The Aug. 16 recall election of two Democrat senators now will have no bearing on control of the chamber.
The recall elections for the state legislative seats drew national attention and a projected $40 million in campaign spending from Republican and Democratic support groups in a fight that was viewed as the first battle of the 2012 election season.
The votes were the climax of months of political fighting in Wisconsin, sparked by Walker’s collective-bargaining bill, which he signed into law March 11.
Democratic recall efforts began as Walker used Republican majorities in the Legislature to push through the union curbs. Republicans retaliated with ouster efforts against some of the 14 Democrats who fled the state in February in an unsuccessful effort to block a vote on Walker’s plan.
Editors Note: Follow returns at the Milwaukee Journal Sentenel's site here.
National Republican and Democratic officials have thrust their oars into Wisconsin's roiled political waters trying to sink rival state senators in recall elections that will determine whether the Capitol remains under the GOP flag.
Republicans now hold 19-14 majority in the state Senate, and they also control the House. It wouldn’t take much to shift the power, with six Republican senators on the recall block Tuesday, and two Democratic senators fighting to keep their seats in recall elections on Aug. 16.
|National Republicans are trying to protect freshman Gov. Scott Walker's conservative agenda. His budget cuts propelled drives to recall senators of both parties. (Getty Images Photo)
The races are drawing national attention because the stakes are high, and the arguments are volatile. Political observers maintain that the outcomes could set a pattern for 2012, while Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), insists that GOP victories are necessary to block unions from “hijacking” the state and toppling Gov. Scott Walker's agenda.
"Both sides are equally terrified,” says Ken Goldstein, director of the Campaign Media Analysis Group that has monitored the multimillion-dollar ad campaigns driving the races.
Special-interest contributions are flowing so fast that they swamp candidates’ own fundraising numbers. Some estimates gauge the total to be spent at $30 million, with $25 million from outside interests and a mere $5 mil from the candidates’ own war chests.
Others say the total outlay could hit $40 million, which would double the combined spending on all 116 of state legislative races in November, according to the Wisconsin State Journal
. Those races for 17 Senate seats and 99 Assembly seats, including 312 candidates on the primary ballot and 225 candidates in the general election, Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign watchdog, told the State Journal.
The senators under fire and their political supporters have been churning out TV commercials that don't even reach many voters in the affected districts because such recall elections are unprecedented and no political outlines exist on how to win.
"When the stakes are so high and money's available, maybe you don't worry about efficiency," Goldstein told The Associated Press.
|Protesters occupied the state Capitol in February and March amid the battle over Walker's budget cuts. (Getty Images Photo)
The recall movements continue the political fallout from Gov. Walker’s controversial budget cuts in February and March, which prompted thousands of residents from across the state to flock to the Capitol to protest. The six Republicans face recalls for supporting Walker’s cuts, including removing collective-bargaining from public employee unions, while the two Democrats are under fire in part because they and a dozen Democratic colleagues fled the state to avoid voting on the package. Another Democrat, Sen. Dave Hansen, turned back his challenger in a July 19 recall vote.
On the GOP side of the ballot, RNC Chairman Priebus promises: "The RNC is all-in in Wisconsin in assisting the state party and the efforts there in protecting the state Senate and Scott Walker from a hijacking from massive public employee unions."
In the Democratic column, President Barack Obama’s political arm at the Democratic National Committee pitched in to help marshal the troops. Obama’s Obama's Organizing for America gathered volunteers in the state capital in Madison to knock on doors and make phone calls to support the Democratic recall targets. Activists from other states also are in Wisconsin knocking on doors to generate support for Democratic candidates.
Many observers, partisan and nonpartisan alike, cast the recalls as a referendum on Walker and his conservative agenda.
Even Priebus noted during a recent AP interview that Walker is a “rising star” nationally in the Republican Party, and the RNC wants to help protect the freshman governor. However, Priebus, who led the Wisconsin Republican Party before being elected to his national post in January, says the importance of the recalls extend far beyond just Walker.
"If we're not able to reasonably slow down the growth of state government in Wisconsin, then we're all going to be hostages to the size of government," Priebus said. "I think this is what this is about: It's a battle for freedom between government and individuals."
Similarly, RNC political director Rick Wiley told the AP: "As we look forward to 2012, Wisconsin is a battleground state — and this is the first fight out there, without a doubt.”
Comments from the other side mirror those sentiments.
"Wisconsin is ground zero to stopping the extreme right-wing agenda that's sweeping America," says Randy Borntrager, political director of People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C., group that has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into support for the Democrats being recalled.
"The eyes of America are watching Wisconsin and taking notice. A resounding victory in Wisconsin will stop the right-wing agenda in its tracks," Borntrager told the La Crosse Tribune
And the media are turning those eyes toward the Badger State. MSNBC’s Ed Schultz of “The Ed Show” plans to cover the recalls live tonight and Tuesday from the state capital. Yes, that’s the same Ed Schultz that MSNBC suspended for a week in May for describing conservative radio host Laura Ingraham as a “right-wing slut.” Schultz also has lambasted Walker and Republicans in general as anti-union, so count on his reports to lean left rather than forward.
The elections have spawned several claims of dirty tricks from both sides, including confusion over the fact that the votes are on different days.
Robocalls recently urged voters in the 32nd Senate District that is home to one of the most contentious battles, between Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Jennifer Shilling, to head to the polls on Aug. 16. Problem is, the Kapanke-Shilling fracas will be settled at the polls on Aug. 9, which would have made the voters seven days late and a ballot box short of counting
Each side blamed the other for that little snafu.
Meanwhile, Priebus says the RNC isn’t buying ads in the campaigns, concentrating rather on getting out the vote. Committee officials intend to contact a half-million voters before the election days.
And GOP candidates are getting plenty of ad support from conservative groups such as Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, which reportedly are spending millions, on ads attacking the Democrats. Similarly liberal groups are ponying up for ads lambasting Republicans in the recall brawls.
The Tribune in La Crosse, the home base of the Kapanke-Shilling duel, sums up the run-up to the election on Tuesday this way: “All eyes — and wallets — are on La Crosse. Mailboxes are stuffed with campaign fliers. Phones are ringing with pleas for votes. The airwaves are awash in ads. With control of the state Legislature in the balance, money is being spent like never before on a state Senate race.”
Although Kapanke has outraised Shilling by far, the Tribune reports, the unprecedented amounts of money pouring into Shilling’s coffers from across the country give her a 20-1 edge on that balance sheet.
When the Tribune asked the candidates how much they are spending on their campaigns, their answers were reminiscent of Little Sir Echo: “Too much.”
The amount of outside money funneling into the campaigns concerns some, because much of it comes from groups that aren’t required to report their sources.
"The public needs to know who's paying for these elections," said the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s McCabe.
"We've found all the election campaigning is paid for by less than 1 percent of the population," McCabe told the Tribune. "They are shaping what people think about candidates. It's coming from an incredibly tiny elite portion — it's nothing resembling the voice of the people."
Whoever’s voice is heard, many political observers believe that the ideological repercussions will reverberate across the land.
Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political scientist and co-founder of pollster.com, told the Tribune that the outcomes indeed will set a national pattern.
"Both sides see this as a test of a new policy direction of the Republican party nationally. They see broad implications elsewhere," Franklin said. "If [Walker's agenda] succeeds here by not flipping the Senate, it gives a real boost to governors elsewhere to continue to pursue that. If the Senate flips, it's a rebuke of those policies."
Dissenting from that view is one of Franklin’s colleagues. Kenneth Mayer, also a political science prof at UW-M, said, "It's the nature of politics that everyone will try to use what happens to their own interest," he said. "The fact that they say it doesn't make it so."
The other races, besides the Kapanke-Schilling bout Tuesday, include:
Republican recalls Tuesday, Aug. 9:
Democratic recalls Tuesday, Aug. 16:
- District 2, Green Bay: Incumbent Republican Sen. Robert Cowles vs. challenger Nancy Nusbaum
- District 8, Milwaukee: Sen. Alberta Darling vs. Rep. Sandy Pasch
- District 10, River Falls: Sen. Sheila Harsdorf vs. Shelly Moore
- District 14, Ripon: Sen. Luther Olsen vs. Rep. Fred Clark
- District 18, Fond du Lac: Sen. Randy Hopper vs. Jessica King.
- District 12, Conover: Incumbent Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin vs. challenger Kimberly Simac
- District 22, Kenosha: Sen. Robert Wirch vs. Johathan Steitz.
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