Wisconsin recall: How powerful super PACs could influence the battle

The campaign to recall Wisconsin's governor began Tuesday in earnest. A major supporter of the effort is a super PAC, a political entity that allows unlimited sums of money to flow into politics. 

Scott Bauer/AP
Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters union, and Kathleen Falk, a former county executive, walk to the Wisconsin state elections board office to deliver paperwork required to launch an effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday, in Madison, Wis. Opponents of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, spurred by anger over his successful push to remove nearly all collective bargaining rights from most public workers, blanketed Wisconsin on Tuesday to launch an unprecedented effort to gather 540,000 signatures and force a recall election.

If hundreds of thousands of protesters camping for weeks on the front lawn of the statehouse in Madison early this year made you think the battle between union organizers and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) had reached an all-time high, think again.

“That was just the warm-up act, this is the real deal,” says Paul Maslin, a campaign strategist and pollster based in Madison.

“This” is the recall effort designed to remove Governor Walker from office, which officially began Tuesday and which may become a testing ground for the growing political clout of so-called “super PACs.”

For the recall election to take place next year, more than 500,000 signatures need to be collected. Recall supporters swarmed the state capital at midnight to galvanize the nearly 9,000 volunteers recruited to gather signatures. Democrats hosted over 100 petition drive events throughout the day Tuesday, including one in front of Walker’s home in nearby Wauwatosa.

If enough signatures are gathered, it would be the third recall election in Wisconsin in a single year, the first two being of Republican state senators also targeted by union supporters.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, calls the proliferation of such recalls “extraordinary” but not unexpected, given the surge in popularity of the tea party these last two years and, on the other side, a resurgence in pro-union activism geared toward protecting union power.

That resurgence was evident in the resounding rejection last week by Ohio voters of legislation passed by Gov. John Kasich (R) that weakened union bargaining rights. We Are Ohio, a coalition of labor interest groups both in and outside the state, spent nearly $30 million on the campaign to reject the legislation.

“We seem to be living in the era of selective mobilization at either end of the political spectrum,” Mr. Jacobs says.

Facilitating the mobilization is a 2010 ruling by the US Supreme Court that allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited money in support of, or against, candidates for elected office. These “super PACs,” or political action committees, are not allowed to funnel money to candidates’ campaigns, but can galvanize votes around issues, such as collective bargaining rights. Unions in Wisconsin are urging voters to recall Walker because of legislation he signed into law early this year that limited collective bargaining rights for public employees in the state.

“One of the unanticipated consequences of the US Supreme Court decision is that it shifted power to political activists who are really driving the electoral process,” Jacobs says. “It’s really precipitated a fundamental and radical shift of money that used to go to the parties but now are going to the super PACs and the allied groups around them.”

The Walker recall is sponsored by United Wisconsin, a super PAC that is a coalition of smaller grass-roots organizations. The group currently has 40,587 Facebook supporters and describes itself as “nonunion and nonpartisan.”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, is also pledging the support of his organization.

Walker is allowed to accept unlimited political donations to mount a defense. His first television ad aired during the Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Walker’s total television spending for this week alone is over $300,000.

Recall organizers have 60 days to get the signatures, and Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board has until Feb. 17 to review the petitions. If they are verified, the earliest an election can take place is March 27, although most agree that it will likely take place in May. However, before any election date is set, legal challenges are expected on both sides, which could push the date later into the year and closer to the presidential election.

The obvious downside of asking voters to recall a sitting governor a few months before a national election is money, says Jacobs. Even though the super PACs are not directly affiliated with a political party, the national party leaders may want their money reserved for larger fights.

“The party leaders may want that money dumped into a race with a higher probable outcome where they may have more of a shot,” he says.

The narrow time window to collect the signatures is already straining both sides.

The state Republican Party released a statement before the rally outside Walker’s family home describing it as “shameless” harassment. Republicans also launched a special website dedicated to reporting “fraudulent activity” involving the recall, which allows people to upload videos, recordings, photos, and other material that they say will be reviewed by retired law-enforcement officials.

On the other side, United Wisconsin blames the opposition for a cyberattack Monday that crashed the organization’s website for a few hours.

The recall effort is also targeting four Republican state senators: Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, Pam Galloway of Wausau, Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls, and Van Wanggaard of Racine. State Republican leaders are undecided about whether or not to mount recall petition drives of their own to target incumbent Democrats.

It is not yet certain if Wisconsinites are suffering from recall fatigue – polls show about an even split in support of a Walker recall. To date, only two US governors have been recalled from office in the past 90 years.

“A recall election is extreme and it’s meant to be extreme,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Mr. Sabato is betting against a successful recall of Walker simply because voters may not see the urgency in a presidential year.

“The criticisms against him may be a great reason to work against him if you opposed what he did, but the reason recalls rarely succeed is they’re fundamentally upsetting the democratic apple cart,” he says. “We have fixed terms for a reason and people see that.”

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