MADISON, Wis. — One of the two Democratic state senators targeted in a recall election Tuesday is all too familiar with having to face voters midway through his term. And his challenger is trying to become the first tea party activist in the state Senate.
Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin has the unenviable distinction of being the only state-level lawmaker in U.S. history to face recall electionis twice. The first time, 21 years ago, it was for his support for tribal spearfishing.
In Tuesday's recall election, Holperin faces Republican Kim Simac of Eagle River, who is vying to become the first tea party member elected to the state Senate. Simac is founder of the tea party group the Northwoods Patriots.
Since Republicans were able to hold on to four of the six seats targeted for recall last week, there is no way Democrats can seize majority control of the Senate and serve as a block to Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans. Instead, the best they can hope for in Tuesday's recalls against Holperin and fellow Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch is to keep the narrow 17-16 majority and hope that moderate Republicans serve as a buffer.
Holperin, who hails from tiny Conover in Wisconsin's sprawling and scenic north woods, is well known after serving 12 years in the Assembly between 1983 and 1995. He's in the third year of his first Senate term. This is Simac's first run for office.
Wirch, of Pleasant Prairie in southeast Wisconsin, faces Republican attorney Jonathan Steitz of Kenosha, a newcomer to the state who's running his first campaign. Wirch served four years in the state Assembly in the 1990s and has been in the Senate since 1997.
Based on campaign spending, both sides see the Holperin race as more competitive than Wirch’s. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a government watchdog group, estimated that the third least amount of money of any of the nine recalls, $2.3 million, had been spent in Wirch's district while more than double that, $4.5 million, had been spent on the Holperin race.
In the 1990 recall, which Holperin survived, he spent a total of $56,000. So far this time, he's spent at least $319,000. And even that's just a drop in the bucket to the millions spent by outsiders.
The previous recall revolved around Holperin's support of spearfishing by the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa. Non-Indian anglers mounted the recall effort, saying the Chippewa spearfishing discriminates against them and depletes fish populations.
Holperin said he draws no parallels to this year's recall, which Simac organized because of his decision to flee to Illinois with all 13 other Senate Democrats to block a vote on Walker's collective bargaining bill.
"I think it's going to be a close race," he said. "I don't know the universe of people who are going to vote against me because of this leaving issue, and I don't know the universe of people who will vote for me."
Holperin said the choice between him and Simac is a clear one, citing statements she made as a tea party leader before she became a candidate as evidence that she's out of touch. Simac has been pilloried during the campaign for comments she made critical of public education, talking about the importance of religion in government, her distaste of government programs and for not paying her property taxes on time eight of the last nine years.
Simac said her opponents have taken her past comments out of context in an effort to discredit her. Holperin said she's trying to distance herself from her past.
"I love this country and stand up for all of us," she said when asked whether she stands by her previous remarks. "I respect this state."
At a forum the week before the election, Simac couldn't name any bill in the Legislature that she supported or opposed. She said in an Associated Press interview days later that she shouldn't be expected to know particulars about bills in the Legislature.
"I'm a first-time candidate," she said. "How am I supposed to know the name of a bill? My first priority should be meeting the voter."
With Republicans securing their majority through last week's victories in four of six recalls, the luster on Holperin's race has faded even as the airwaves from television stations in Rhinelander and Wausau remain clogged with attack ads against both him and Simac.
Steitz, generally seen as the underdog against Wirch, said he feels like the Republican base of voters in his southeast Wisconsin district is motivated since last week's elections. Steitz has attacked Wirch for fleeing to Illinois, saying that was a "terrible decision."
"It was the wrong decision to make," Steitz said. "He abdicated his responsibility and it was a dereliction of duty."
Wirch has defended the move, saying it was necessary to oppose Walker's bill.
The 37-year-old Steitz, who moved to the district in 2001, said it shouldn't be held against him that he's a newcomer while Wirch, 67, has lived there his whole life.
"Bob Wirch has been in Madison almost 19 years and that's long enough," Steitz said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said it's vital for Democrats to hold on to the seats to ensure that Republicans have only a one-seat majority. With no leeway for Republicans, it greatly increases the chances of negotiation, Miller said.
The recall efforts in Wisconsin this year were the largest in U.S. history. Previously, in nearly 100 years there had been only 20 recall attempts, including Holperin's, with just 13 successful.
With the ouster of two Republicans last week, four of the 15 state-level office holders recalled have been from Wisconsin.
Story includes information from The Associated Press.
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