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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 Staff writer / August 8, 2011

This Aug. 1 photo shows schoolhouse where the modern Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisc. The historic site is located in one of six state Senate districts where Republican incumbents are targeted for recall Tuesday, Aug. 9.

Scott Bauer / AP

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Chicago

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

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“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.

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