Why Wisconsin’s recall election matters to the rest of America

Tens of millions of dollars are pouring into Wisconsin, where voters will decide Tuesday whether to recall six Republican state senators for their role in the union battles of February and March.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted August 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm EDT

Chicago – For an election with only six races, Wisconsin‘s recall has attracted a huge amount of attention – and money.

“There’s no doubt in my mind: These recalls will have a ripple effect across the entire nation,” says Jeffrey Weigand, spokesman for embattled state Sen. Luther Olsen. More than $30 million has poured in, mostly from out of state, to fund the battle for the Wisconsin state senate.

Tuesday’s election may unseat six Republicans. Next week, two Democrats face the same fight. The recalls may shift the balance of power in the state Senate from the current 19-14 Republican majority.

Because Republicans still control the Assembly and governor’s mansion, a Democratic victory will not roll back any of the new legislation. The unprecedented summer election will be “almost entirely symbolic,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

These elections are the latest chapter in the union battles that thrust America‘s Dairyland into the national spotlight not long after the midterm elections painted much of the nation red, awarding Republican majorities to dozens of statehouses, especially across the midwest and south.

When Gov. Scott Walker introduced anti-union legislation early this year, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into Madison, the state capital. As the story unfolded, legislators hid in neighboring states, demonstrators moved into the capitol building, and the national media broadcast the story to the world. Voters petitioned to recall lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – prompting this month’s elections – and some of the battles wound up in the state Supreme Court.

Since taking office last fall, Governor Walker has successfully passed several hallmarks of the Republican agenda, including tax cuts, limits on union collective bargaining powers, concealed-carry gun rights, harsher ID restrictions in the voting booth, and new political redistricting.

“That stuff is all done, so having one chamber in the legislature go back to Democratic control doesn’t change anything,” notes Professor Burden.

But don’t underestimate the power of a symbol, he adds. Tuesday’s election carries political currency for Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee, and other states where high-stakes partisan fights erupted after Republican upsets in the state legislature, governor’s office, or both.

The recall elections will answer “whether Republicans have overreached or not,” says Burden. They will also serve as barometer for the public appetite for their inaugural tea party legislators, who have been at the vocal forefront of the legislative warfare.

What does it cost to recall a senator?

Both parties agree that what makes the recall elections this month so unusual is the out-of-state money pouring in to fund phone banks, direct mail, broadcast advertising, and grassroots organizing.

Each side says the other is spending more. The uncertainty stems from the shadowy nature of the organizations financing the battle: unregistered advocacy groups, which do not endorse a specific candidate or file disclosure reports.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending in the state, reports that, as of Sunday, total spending in the recall election reached $33 million. Outside spending accounts for $28 million, with about $5.1 million directly spent by candidates. Research Director Michael Buelow says spending for Republican and Democratic candidates is roughly “neck and neck.” He estimates that when the races are over, spending will have reached from $35 to $40 million.

“There’s a feeling in the state that a lot of money is flowing in from the outside, either to fuel the labor side for the Democrats, or the other special interest groups that are fueling the Republican effort,” Mr. Buelow says.

The election’s top spender is We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of union groups that has already spent $9.8 million on local races benefiting Democrats. The top conservative organizations supporting Republican incumbents are Club For Growth, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation For Children, which are all unregistered.

Matt Seaholm, state director of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, would not confirm how much his organization is spending but said “by no means” was it the “biggest spender” in the recall efforts.

If Democrats emerge victorious, he predicted, “they’ll be looking to recall the governor and put Wisconsin into a further perpetual election cycle, instead of letting elected officials govern.”

Walker may indeed be a target for recall in 2012, according to hints from Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate. The deadline for signatures to get that effort going is in November.

Spotlight: The fight for a Republican bastion

In the state’s 14th Senate district, an Republican stronghold and the historic birthplace of the national party, long-time state Senator Olsen (R) is facing an intense battle with Rep. Fred Clark (D).

Even though Olsen has comfortably held his office for seven years, this recall race “is nothing like we’ve ever seen,” says Mr. Weigand, his spokesman. “The entire country is watching.”

If the recalls fail, “that’s going to embolden legislators across the country with the courage to make tough decisions to balance their books and cut spending,” Weigand says.

On Monday, Mr. Tate released a statement mocking Walker for his low profile during the recall of his fellow Republicans, including Olsen.

“It seems that having finally gotten what he wanted, an election that is all about HIM, Scott Walker has suspended his self-regard in a moment of expediency and has come to the realization that he’s, well, toxic,” Tate wrote.

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