Campaign to Recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Will Be Wild Card In 2012 Presidential Race

Election '16

The effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and a handful of other top GOP officials is not likely to reach its dramatic climax until the summer of 2012 or even later—when its outcome will sweep into the presidential race like a political tsunami.  

Although the summer of 2012 seems like political light years away, many steps -- some requiring months to be completed -- must be undertaken in Wisconsin before a recall vote will be held, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB), which is overseeing the election. Selecting a Democratic opponent to be on the ballot to face Walker is but one detail, which will come only after a lengthy process, with likely court fights to certify the signatures triggering the special recall election. 

In the meantime, both sides are turning the recall campaign into a nationwide proxy fight pitting union-busting Republicans against pro-labor Democrats and other supporters. Just last week, Walker was in New York City raising campaign money. And when the actual recall election is held, as most political observers believe that it eventually will be, the nation will see the real-life impact of Wisconsin’s tougher new voter ID laws, which were adopted, as in many GOP-led states, to complicate access to voting for some traditional Democratic voter blocks.  

More so than in any 2012 presidential primary or caucus, the Wisconsin recall will be a preview of the tactics and organizing moxie of the two major political parties before November’s vote. Indeed, retired Democratic congressman David Obey, pondering running against Walker himself, cautioned against being overconfident. 

“Democrats who think that almost any person nominated to run against Scott Walker can win are dead wrong,” Obey told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This is a steep uphill fight. If we do win, it will be by a razor-thin margin.”  

“Powerful, right-wing, elitist moneymen all across this country will spend whatever they think it takes to keep control of Wisconsin’s government,” Obey continued. “If we do not think this through and support the candidate with the broadest possible appeal, we will waste the effort of thousands of volunteers who stood in the snow, sleet and cold to gather an incredible one million signatures because they felt they were part of a cause bigger than themselves. That would be a tragedy. So much is at stake that we owe it to them to simply not allow that to happen.” 

Last week marked the end of the first phase of the recall—gathering petition signatures—and the start of the next phase, the process to certify the petitions and set a date for the special election. That process has many steps that are prone to delays and legal fights.   

On Tuesday, January 16, GAB received more than 1 million signed petitions to recall Walker and other top Republican office holders. The petitions were taken to an undisclosed location, where they are being scanned to provide electronic copies to the targeted incumbents and the public. Once the scanning is completed, which is expected to be this week, the GAB will start its signature verification process. 

Under state law, GAB has 31 days to review petition signatures. Despite hiring dozens of temporary workers, it is expected to go to court seeking an extension. GAB’s spokesman has said it does not know how much time it will seek. Political stalwarts, like Obey, were quoted in press reports saying it could take “months.” 

So far, only one lawsuit has been filed against the bipartisan board, comprised of retired judges. Walker’s campaign committee sued to ensure that GAB does a better job weeding out fabricated names or duplicates, and obtained a court order to that effect. However, Wisconsin law says it is his campaign’s job—not GAB’s role—to find errors and challenge signatures that are being counted toward certifying a recall vote. 

GAB’s temporary staff will pick out any obviously fictitious names, its spokesman explained, and will then present those to the GAB board itself, which will have to vote to strike those names and will likely do so. Also, GAB will be creating a database of all signers to identify duplicates, and those will be presented to the board as well. 

Republicans are also expected to go to court to request more time to review the signatures. They may not be able to stop a recall because the volume of signatures submitted essentially assures that there will be a recall vote—but they are likely to sow doubts about the process as organizers try to turn opinions in Walker’s favor. 

Once the signature stage is completed, GAB is then required to hold a special election six Tuesdays later. But that may not happen on that timetable because there is likely to be a statewide primary election to determine a challenger. 

State law requires that a candidate to replace the recall targets be on the ballot. Because Wisconsin has open primaries—allowing any candidate who files to run for office, not just a candidate nominated by a party—a statewide primary election will likely be held first, six weeks after GAB certifies the recount can proceed. Then the actual special recall election would come four weeks later.   

The recall is not happening in a statewide political vacuum. Wisconsin’s presidential primary is April 3. On August 14, it holds the partisan primary election for other federal and state offices. The recall election will be scheduled after the process unfolds, meaning it is impossible to know precisely when the vote will be held—although it appears increasingly likely after July 4 and possibly closer to Labor Day. 

In other words, it likely will come near the Democratic and Republican national conventions, creating great momentum that will wash into the final stretches of the 2012 presidential campaign.

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