Will Voters Boot Wisconsin Republicans? 7 Things to Know About Tuesday's Recall Elections
Tuesday, August 9 is going to be a big day not just for Wisconsin politics, but nationally. It was this winter, after all, that the Capitol building in Madison was the scene of not just protest, but a full-on occupation by workers and allies enraged by Republican governor Scott Walker's bill stripping collective bargaining rights from the state's public employees. Teachers, students, organized labor, local and national progressive groups, leaders, and even rock stars convened in Wisconsin to join the rallies, but the bill was passed anyway.
The movement in Wisconsin pivoted then from massive protest to massive organizing, and now Tuesday will see the recall elections of six Republican state senators who supported Walker's anti-worker bill. One Democratic state senator, Dave Hansen, has already successfully retained his seat after a July 19 election, and two other Democrats face recalls on August 16.
Just three wins, and the Democrats regain control of the state senate. And the polls look good to do just that. But Walker and his corporate and Tea Party cronies aren't going to give up easily, and with all political junkies' eyes on Wisconsin in the coming days, expect plenty of drama and dirty tricks.
Only three times in U.S. history have recall elections switched party control of a legislative body; Wisconsin has only seen two legislators recalled in its history. This is an unprecedented fight, and it's one where Democrats, progressives, and organized labor have been on the offensive. It has huge implications.
"I believe if given the facts they're going to make good decisions," Walker told reporters of the recalls. We couldn't agree more. We've compiled a list of things to keep in mind while the voters make those decisions.
1. Voter suppression
Wisconsin native Meredith Clark called Scott Walker's voter ID bill his “evil genius masterpiece.” The bill doesn't go into effect until 2012, but it requires poll workers to start asking for photo ID right away—a surefire tactic for confusing and driving away voters who believe they don't have the right to vote without these documents. (Though it's unlikely to have an impact before the recalls Tuesday, Walker also ordered closed several DMVs in Democratic districts, making it harder for voters to get state-issued photo ID.)
And that's just the legal voter suppression.
The other kind? Well, Americans for Prosperity (the Koch brothers' group) sent out absentee ballot applications to at least two of the districts that are holding recalls with instructions to mail the ballot back days after the real deadline of August 9. AFP called the mislabeled date a typo, but this isn't the first time AFP has been involved in some election shenanigans in Wisconsin, as AlterNet's Adele Stan reported.
It may be the first time, though, that they're so openly colluding with the religious right; as Stan wrote:
“The address for the "Absentee Ballot Application Processing Center" on the return envelope is a Madison post office box, 1327, that is the mailing address for Wisconsin Family Action, a religious-right group that is virulently anti-gay, and was a vocal supporter of Wisconsin's 2006 anti-same-sex-marriage ballot measure, which passed into law.”
A Milwaukee prosecutor also looked into charges that Wisconsin Right to Life and Family Action were offering gift cards to volunteers who signed up anti-choice voters to vote by absentee ballot in the recalls.
After a closely-watched state Supreme Court election was decided by 14,000 votes mysteriously found by a Waukesha County clerk, it's a safe bet that there will be more battles over the voting process in the next week.
2. Corporate cash
Elections aren't cheap in the post-Citizens United age, and these recalls have already broken records for spending in five districts. The amount of outside cash pouring in is staggering; the 8th district, where Alberta Darling faces a challenge from Sandy Pasch, $7.9 million has already been spent. The Club for Growth alone has dumped $400,000 into Darling's race, which Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate called the "crown jewel" of the six.
Darling is the co-chair of the legislature's Joint Finance Committee, the committee that passed Walker's anti-union bill. She was originally considered the safest of the recall targets, but Pasch has polls that show her within range or even ahead of Darling.
As far as where the money is coming from to make these races so costly, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post noted:
“In fairness, labor is investing big money in the recall wars too, via a major ad campaign being waged by the labor-backed We Are Wisconsin. But labor has been involved in this fight since the beginning, and the sudden influx of outside conservative money suggests that national right wing activists understand that if Dems take back the state senate, it would represent a massive blow to their broader agenda.”
3. Women's issues
Unions were the big issues that led to the recall campaigns, but Walker and his crew have been awful on many issues. Walker's targeted Planned Parenthood for deep funding cuts and has a long history of anti-abortion action. and Wisconsin Right to Life has been pouring in funding and won a court battle just this week, removing the state's limit of $10,000 on individual donations to a candidate or political action committee. Right to Life's PAC isn't the only one bringing in the big bucks—Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition is involved as well.
The attacks on public sector workers has hit women hard as well. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told me several months ago that Walker's union-busting bill was falling heavily on public sector nurses and teachers; jobs that are disproportionately female (and also disproportionately people of color). “Their plan unfolds on us and it's landing disproportionately on women because we're in the public sector,” Henry said.
It's no wonder, then, that five of the six Democratic challengers are women, and that national groups like EMILY's List and prominent national politicians like Kirsten Gillibrand, the senator from New York, are calling on women to support them with donations as well as votes and volunteer time. Nancy Nusbaum, running in the 2nd district, is a former head of the pro-choice group Wisconsin NARAL, and Shelly Moore, in the 10th district, is a member of the National Education Association Board of Directors.
4. National election picture
The 2012 election might be a presidential election year, but it's going to hinge on the states. Deeply unpopular conservative governors have driven polls up for Democratic incumbents, like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who were previously looking vulnerable, and if Wisconsin is trending Democratic in 2012, that could be a good sign for Barack Obama's reelection (though he should be careful not to assume that he can ride reverse coattails if the national jobs picture is still dismal).
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's senior Senator, Herb Kohl, is retiring in 2012. Kohl is the lone Democrat representing the state after the defeat of progressive hero Russ Feingold in 2010. And a Wisconsin leaning left could be poised to elect the first out lesbian to the Senate—if Representative Tammy Baldwin decides to run. (“I think I am likely to run,” she told the Capital Times.) Widely considered one of the most progressive members of the House, Baldwin polls second among possible Democratic candidates to...Russ Feingold, though he has said he'll hold off a decision until September and has urged other Dems to get in the race.
Either one of them would add a much-needed progressive voice to the Senate.
There's also Paul Ryan, one of the austerity-obsessed GOP House leaders, who hails from Wisconsin's 1st district. McClatchy reported:
“A Ryan loss would cost his party a lot more than a seat in Congress. It would deprive it of one of its most influential figures. And it would be a huge blow to its policy agenda, which Ryan has played a central role in crafting.”
Defeating Ryan would be an uphill battle, but a resurgent Democratic party will certainly give him the run of his life—and his popularity is stumbling after his polarizing budget proposal, which would have taken a hatchet to Medicare, among other things.
It's no wonder that organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are recruiting volunteers from around the country to call out the vote in Wisconsin.
5. The Tea Party
Scott Walker was one of the Tea Party-backed governors swept in in 2010, and the six state senators being recalled are closely linked to him. And the Tea Party is pulling out all the stops to keep them in power.
Andy Kroll at Mother Jones writes:
“Spearheaded by the Tea Party Express, the "Restoring Common Sense" tour brings together four different conservative groups—TPX, Tea Party Nation, FreedomWorks, and the Patriot Action Network—and plans to hit nine cities in what the groups see as a crucial battle to keep the GOP senators in office, and thus prevent Democrats from jamming up Republican Governor Scott Walker's agenda.”
The Tea Party may have been declining in influence since the protests erupted in Madison so spectacularly this winter, but they're not giving up and going away quietly, and the politicians they backed continue to forge ahead with destructive policies. The successful recall of several of the Republican state senators in Wisconsin could be a serious—and very public—blow to the image that the Tea Party so desperately wants to cling to, of a massive popular movement.
Organized labor has been declared dead so many times that it took even progressives completely by surprise when union-busting was the catalyst for some of the biggest, most dynamic protests this country's seen in a while. The protests were organic, pulled together by grassroots groups, but the big unions quickly realized the potential and made Madison a rallying point for their cause. And it spread to nearby Indiana and Ohio.
Labor knows that these recalls are going to be a show of its power, something it can point to come 2012 when the Democratic party comes calling for the usual ground troops. Significant victories here will prove that the unions still have the power to make or break an election, as well as provide an obvious issue for national Dems to rally around. If the recalls succeed, the so-called pivot to jobs that the administration and Congress are talking about after the deeply unpopular debt ceiling deal might actually succeed.
7. Recall Walker?
Scott Walker isn't eligible for a recall yet, because he hasn't been in office a full year. But if the Democrats manage to take back the state senate, expect a big target on Walker's back just as soon as it's possible.
Want up-to-the-minute updates on the recalls? Keep an eye on AlterNet, as we'll be following them closely, but there's also this Twitter list of Wisconsin tweeters that you can follow for the latest.
*An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Sandy Pasch was African-American.