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Wisconsin recall elections begin, a legacy of Scott Walker's labor union wars

Nine Wisconsin senators are targets of recall elections, some of which got under way Tuesday. If Democrats pick up seats, it would signal a voter backlash against GOP Gov. Scott Walker and his tough stance toward labor unions.

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“A referendum on the governor’s policies and on GOP policies of the spring is really what this is about,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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Recent polls show Walker’s approval ratings hovering below 10 percent for Democrats and in the high 80s for Republicans – a gap of nearly 80 points, and the biggest disparity of any governor in the country in polls this year. At the same time, the percentage of voters saying they don’t have an opinion is just 3 percent, the lowest in the country.

Voters are “both incredibly polarized and very highly opinionated,” says Professor Franklin. “And that’s a recipe for stalemate.”

So what should people watch for Tuesday, and in the three other elections over the next couple months? Turnout, for one thing.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election in April – which was largely a proxy referendum on how voters felt about Walker and his policies – was notable both for being a near-tie and for generating twice the turnout expected for that sort of election.

Tuesday's election is a primary election for a legislative seat without a “real” primary opponent, held at an odd time of year – an unprecedented scenario that makes turnout impossible to predict. But expect pundits to weigh in quickly on what the numbers say about how well organized Democrats are in getting voters to the polls.

Few people expect the balance of power to shift in the state Senate. Most of the Republicans who are defending their seats were elected in 2008 (recall rules stipulate that a politician must be in office for at least a year before facing a recall vote, making Walker and senators elected in 2010 immune), a year that favored Democrats, and as a result they are relatively strong politicians in solidly Republican districts.

Two of them – Sens. Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke – are considered the most vulnerable. Senator Kapanke’s district has been getting steadily more Democratic, and Senator Hopper has been dealing with a messy, public divorce in the past few months.

It’s unclear if any of the other Republicans might lose, but in such strange elections, anything could happen. “After Kapanke and Hopper, it doesn’t appear so easy for the Democrats, but these are local special elections in the middle of summer,” says Mr. Mayers. “There’s no precedent for them, and polling is not always reliable.”

Meanwhile, three Democratic senators face elections of their own next Tuesday. At least one, Sen. Jim Holperin, is vulnerable.

“Both parties have been talking a good game – on the Democratic side about how they’re going to take back the Senate, and on Republican side that they’re going to gain a seat or two,” says Franklin. “Both of these seem to me to be huge spin.”

If, in fact, the whole recall effort ends with the status quo unchanged, it may be viewed as a defeat for Democrats and their union allies.

“If the Democrats don’t win at least a couple of these seats, then there will be a lot of second-guessing,” says Mayers. “This is a party-endorsed strategy to flip the Senate. If they fail to advance on that goal, then they’ll have to answer to that.”

If Democrats do get closer, even if they don’t gain three seats, it may energize efforts to launch a recall effort against Walker next year, once he’s eligible, and could also be viewed positively by those focusing on the presidential election and other legislative seats next November.

“We’re in an election cycle that’s never ended,” says Mayers. “This is all leading down to November 2012.”

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