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.

Dinesh Ramde/AP
A voter in Glendale, Wis., casts a ballot in a Democratic primary Tuesday as part of recall efforts against Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling. Darling is one of six Republican state senators being targeted for recall for supporting Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill this winter.

Remember the Wisconsin recall efforts, in which angry voters on both sides of the aisle sought to punish state lawmakers for their roles in Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial move to end collective bargaining and other union rights?

On Tuesday, voters in a handful of districts can finally weigh in on those lawmakers targeted in the recalls. It’s possible – but unlikely – that the elections could even change the power dynamic in the state Senate, if Democrats were to gain the three seats they need to take control.

The recall elections will gauge the political pulse in a highly divided state that is likely to be a pivotal swing state in the 2012 presidential contest.

“This is the first real electoral test of the staying power of the [collective bargaining] issue,” says Jeff Mayers, president of Wispolitics.com, a nonpartisan political website in Madison. “Does it have electoral legs – that’s what everyone is watching to see.”

But don’t look for answers right away.

Tuesday’s vote is just the first of four elections that will take place over the next month, in a complex series of primaries and general elections that is sending voters to the polls at an odd time of year.

To understand it all, it helps to think of the votes not as recalls but as special elections, in which lawmakers are being forced to defend their seats ahead of schedule. The six Republican senators being challenged – by Democrats angry over their roles in Governor Walker’s legislation – would have had to face reelection Tuesday, but state Republicans helped buy them some more time by putting up Republican candidates as Democrats (“protest candidates," according to the GOP; "fake Democrats," according to the Democrats) so as to force a Democratic primary and buy GOP legislators another month.

"If there weren't primaries in these races, our Republican senators would have had to face elections just days after voting on the state budget, essentially giving them no time to campaign," Stephan Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, told Fox News.

The actual general election will be held a month later, on Aug 9.

Next Tuesday, meanwhile, three Democratic senators will have to defend themselves. They are among those who fled the state in a bid to prevent a vote on the governor's budget plan. Though Democrats haven’t put up protest candidates, two of those elections also have multiple GOP challengers, and so will hold a primary next week rather than a general election, and the general election will take place Aug. 16.

If the procedures seem somewhat arcane, many observers are nonetheless looking at these elections for insight into the mood of the electorate in Wisconsin, which more than any other state has symbolized the angry partisan divide around union politics, in particular.

“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.

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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