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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 4.0° F  Fair
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Recall them all! The upcoming elections could turn Wisconsin politics upside down
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Credit:April Albaugh

"I've never seen the voters of this state so divided," says state Rep. Fred Clark.

The 52-year-old forester (D-Baraboo) is giving me a firsthand glimpse of the bitter division as he goes door-to-door in Coloma, telling residents of the working-class rural community why they should dispose of their current senator, Republican Luther Olsen, in favor of him.

Soft-spoken and affable, Clark is wearing jeans, a button-down short-sleeve shirt and a cap from the King veterans home. He always starts out with the same simple introduction. "Just wanted to say hi and put a face to the name," he tells residents who answer the door. The person generally gives little indication of a political opinion and nods politely as Clark makes a brief pitch. It usually includes a claim that he is "generally a pretty hard worker" and that he is known to work across party lines.

"Most people, in a one-on-one situation, are going to be relatively polite," he says, adding that group situations are more likely to turn into hostile interactions.

For some people, however, Clark's mere presence is offensive. "I'm 63 years old and I want to be able to retire," yells a woman who hands back Clark's flyer. "And I looked on the Internet and saw how much we pay these teachers for their pensions - just go!"

By now Clark knows to accept the difference of opinion and leave. A week earlier he made the monumental mistake of telling a staffer what he thought about a voter who had just hung up on him. "I feel like calling her back up and slapping her around," he said, unaware that the woman's message machine was still recording.

Clark is running in one of the nine recall elections occurring in Wisconsin this summer. Six Republican state senators have been recalled for their support of Gov. Scott Walker's budget, which undercuts public-sector unions and makes big cuts to education and health care. The legislation sparked mass protests in Madison for weeks and energized union members and their progressive supporters all over the state.

Meanwhile, the Republicans responded in kind, rallying anger over the Senate Democrats' decision to leave the state to prevent a vote on the measure, an act of defiance that many voters saw as irresponsible, if not illegal. As a result, three Democratic state senators are being recalled.

There will be three Democratic primaries on July 12; two Republican primaries and a general election on July 19; and general elections on Aug. 9 and Aug. 16. To prevent general elections from taking place as early as July 12, the state GOP encouraged spoiler candidates to run as Democrats, thus forcing primaries and delaying most of the general elections until August. While Democrats have decried the maneuver as dirty politics, Republicans say it is the only way to give their incumbents a chance to make up for the time they missed on the campaign trail while they were working on the state budget.

In addition, the GOP likely believes a longer campaign will drain the Democrats of the momentum that drove the recall petitions in the first place.

Wisconsin is one of 18 states to allow for the recall of state legislators. The provision was added to the state constitution in 1926, as a result of advocacy by Progressive-era leaders like Fightin' Bob La Follette, who saw the recall as a means for the people to hold leaders accountable. In the 85 years since, only two legislators have been removed via recall. Republican state Sen. George Petak got the boot in 1996 for reneging on his promise to vote against the Miller Park sales tax, and Democratic state Sen. Gary George was ousted in 2002 after being charged with a number of corruption-related felonies. In fact, in the entire country, only 14 legislators have ever been recalled.

If state Democrats net three seats through the recalls, they will win back control of the Senate. For Republicans, keeping their majority, or perhaps even expanding it, would be the ultimate vindication of Gov. Walker's conservative agenda.

Regardless of whether the recalls are successful (for either party), the fact that nine senators are facing them this summer is a historic event for the state, as well as the country. It represents an unprecedented level of state political activity, and, more specifically, an unprecedented level of anger at politicians.

State Sen. Jim Holperin, a Democrat from the north woods, hopes Fred Clark joins him in the Senate, but he laments the circumstances.

"None of this had to happen," Holperin says. "If the governor had stuck to the agenda he articulated during the campaign we wouldn't be going through this painful process."

Walker has been accused of keeping mum on his controversial plan to end most collective bargaining for most public employees on the campaign trail during the 2010 election. When he sprung his surprise in February, all hell broke loose at the Capitol.

The painful recall process is one Holperin understands better than any living Wisconsinite. Holperin, who also faces a recall this year, was forced into a recall in 1990, when he was a member of the Assembly. Those pushing the recall were upset about a decision a federal court had made about tribal hunting rights in northern Wisconsin. As a state legislator, there was nothing Holperin could do. He was simply a victim of circumstance.

To force this year's recall elections against a senator, the recall committees had 60 days to gather signatures equivalent to a quarter of the Senate district's total vote in the last gubernatorial election. That figure ranges between 15,000 and 22,000.

Getting that many signatures in such a short period of time is no easy feat. However, the Internet has made it much easier than it would have been in 1926.

"It was a lot of social media in terms of putting the volunteers together, and there were a lot of volunteer events where we'd get 1,500 signatures on a Saturday," says David VanderLeest, a wind farmer who organized the recall effort against Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and is the Republican candidate challenging Hansen in a July 19 general election.

While online tools like Facebook and Twitter helped organizers identify people who were willing to volunteer or sign the petitions (they must sign them in person), the efforts were successful mostly because of the passion that motivated so many to get involved.

"I was blessed that about 300 people in the community stepped forward and affirmed that what Sen. Hansen did was wrong," says VanderLeest. "There were a lot of business owners who kept petitions at the counter of their businesses."

The recall drives for the GOP senators were even more remarkable, since all but one of the targeted senators come from reliably Republican districts. After all, these are Republicans who survived a historic Democratic wave election in 2008. In fact, two of them, Luther Olsen and Rob Cowles, were unopposed.

Jess King is an Oshkosh Democrat who lost the 2008 election to Sen. Randy Hopper by 163 votes and is now challenging Hopper in the recall. She says that her district is traditionally conservative, but that the GOP legislature's disregard for many important institutions of state government, such as citizen input and peaceful labor relations, has turned voters off.

"This is a very unique situation, and I have to say as somebody who has served in public office that I understand the magnitude of collecting 23,000 signatures in five weeks," King says.

King's race demonstrates how the recall campaigns have morphed from reactions to the governor's collective bargaining proposal to typical political contests, with all the familiar issues and character attacks. Hopper, for instance, has been forced to answer a number of awkward questions after his wife told protestors at their Fond du Lac residence that he had moved in with a mistress in Madison. Although King and other Democrats have steered clear of commenting on his marriage, they never miss an opportunity to accuse Hopper of spending too much time in Madison.

In fact, none of the nine Democratic recall candidates mention the issue of collective bargaining on their websites. Several of them, including King and Hansen, don't even have a page dedicated to a discussion of issues. Instead, visitors are limited to their biographies, most of which emphasize their roots in whatever part of the state they're from.

John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times, believes this type of "soft messaging" can undermine the value of the recalls, which he says should remain referendums on Walker's policies. "You have a tendency on both sides to cede election campaigns to the professional consultants, and that's bad," he says.

Both sides have softened their messages to appeal to independents and moderates.

"Turning out 25% of the gubernatorial vote is no trivial thing, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can get 50% plus one of the electorate to come out and support your candidate," says Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor and pollster.

Franklin, who has compiled recent election data in all of the state Senate districts, says the lack of precedent for so many recalls makes it nearly impossible to predict the outcome. However, the recent Supreme Court race between conservative Justice David Prosser and liberal favorite JoAnne Kloppenburg, which progressives sought to portray as a referendum on the governor, could offer a glimpse of what to expect in each district.

In Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf's district in the northwest, for instance, Prosser did significantly worse than Walker, suggesting that Democrats may be more energized than Republicans in that area. However, in Republican Sen. Alberta Darling's Milwaukee-area district, Prosser performed much better than Walker, perhaps an indication of the influence of the region's prominent conservative talk radio circuit.

Although the electorate for the spring election will hardly be identical to that of the recall elections, the results suggest that both sides already have highly energized bases of support.

Some fear the recalls promise a future of endless campaigns fueled by the two parties and special interests. In a recent Isthmus column, Christian Schneider, of the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, pointed out that electronic voter files have made the once-formidable task of gathering 15,000-20,000 signatures much easier than Bob La Follette could have ever imagined back in the 1920s.

"Anytime one of the...moneyed 'offended interests' feels like rallying their supporters together to call another election, they can just mine that list for signatures. Even the most Republican state Senate district has 15,000 Democrats, and vice-versa."

But state Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), who has served in the legislature since 1957, does not believe even in the age of the Internet that recalls will become a regular part of Wisconsin politics.

"This is a very unique situation," he says. "The issue is erasing 50 years of Wisconsin values and workers' rights. It's not just a single vote."

Risser points out that the recalls followed demonstrations larger than any he had ever seen in his 54 years in state government. "I can remember crowds during the Vietnam War, but nowhere near as large or as peaceful," he says.

And in fact, not all the recall petition drives were successful, even in the midst of the most controversial state political conflict in generations. Progressive efforts to force recalls of Republicans in the two most conservative Senate districts failed. Similarly, attempts to recall Democrats in five reliably liberal districts got nowhere near the required number of signatures.

To one of those Republicans who survived a recall challenge, Sen. Glenn Grothman (West Bend), the recalls are a "scary thing" because they suggest that people are unwilling to tolerate lawmakers who make tough budget decisions. Grothman, who supported an even more drastic overhaul of collective bargaining than the governor, says his party was simply balancing the budget without raising taxes.

"I don't know what other choices we had," he says.

State Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), who served as the Senate Democratic leader in the 1980s, worries that the only casualties of the recalls will be moderate legislators who represent districts that are relatively split politically. Cullen was the health secretary for Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and is known to be a moderate or pragmatist. He's currently writing a book about the increasing polarization of Wisconsin politics, a situation he blames on the flush of Madison-based special interest money in state elections.

"The amount of money in legislative campaigns has dramatically increased since I started...and the campaigns are increasingly centralized in Madison," Cullen says.

In all likelihood, the recall elections will be even more expensive than typical legislative races, with money pouring in from labor unions, corporations and ideological groups with a stake in the outcome.

Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, says he expects most of the spending to be done by independent groups rather than the campaigns themselves. Olsen, for instance, perhaps because he has not run in a competitive race in years, has lagged behind other candidates in fundraising. According to the Democracy Campaign, Olsen has only raised $55,491 for the year. That's less than the conservative Club for Growth has already spent in ads in the La Crosse media market, where Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke is running a tough race against Democratic Rep. Jen Shilling. Cowles, whom many consider the least vulnerable Republican incumbent, has only raised $400 this year.

In very close races, says McCabe, candidates often "turn into spectators" as third-party groups flood the airwaves and define the message of the campaigns.

Many of the biggest players are already familiar names in Wisconsin politics, such as the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the teachers union that supports Democrats, and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the business group that supports Republicans. However, as the national spotlight shines on the recalls, many other spenders have emerged.

"What is new is the large number of groups we have not typically heard from," says McCabe, pointing to organizations such as MoveOn.org, People for the American Way and even a group representing the CREDO phone company, all of whom support Democrats. Others have ambiguous if not bizarre names, such as Irreverent Contingent or the Playground Legends.

Josh Wolf, a staffer for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, is working with the Clark campaign. Wolf, who hails from Maryland, came to Wisconsin to work on the recalls. He thinks they could represent an enduring precedent for labor and government in the U.S.

"I really believe this is the most important election going on in the country right now," he says.

Recall election scorecard

Incumbent: SEN. ALBERTA DARLING (R-River Hills)
Challenger: Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay)
Primary: July 12, General election: Aug. 9

Elected to the Senate in 1992, Darling, a former Planned Parenthood board member, was known as a moderate from a moderate district. Like many other Republicans, she has since moved to the right, and as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, is one of the most powerful legislators. She has raised more money than any other recall candidate.

Incumbent: SEN. RANDY HOPPER (R-Fond du Lac)
Challenger: Jess King (D)
Primary: July 12,General election: Aug. 9

Hopper, who is in the middle of his first term, edged out King by 168 votes in 2008. Amid allegations that he no longer lives in his district and that he helped a girlfriend get a job in the Walker administration, Hopper is considered one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents. A poll by the liberal blog Daily Kos shows King up by three points.

Incumbent: SEN. ROB COWLES (R-Green Bay)
Challenger: Nancy Nusbaum (D)
Primary: July 12, General election: Aug. 9

A 23-year veteran of the Senate, Cowles is likely the least vulnerable Republican.

Incumbent: SEN. DAVE HANSEN (D-Green Bay)
Challenger: David VanderLeest (R)
General election: July 19

Although the district leans Republican, Democrats boosted their position when they got Rep. John Nygren's candidacy thrown out by identifying a number of invalid signatures on his petition. That makes this the only recall race without a primary. The result of the general election on July 19 will serve as a harbinger for the others. VanderLeest's history of legal troubles recently came to light, including a current investigation stemming from domestic violence allegations.

Incumbent: SEN. JIM HOLPERIN (D-Conover)
Challenger: Kim Simac (R)
Primary: July 19, General election: Aug. 16

Kim Simac, a fiery tea party activist, provides a stark contrast to the mild-mannered Holperin, who survived a recall as an assemblyman in 1990 and represents the most conservative district of any Democrat.

Incumbent: SEN. DAN KAPANKE (R-La Crosse)
Challenger: Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse)
Primary: July 12,General election: Aug. 9

This is the only contest taking place in a truly Democratic-leaning district, and Kapanke is considered the most likely Republican to fall.

Incumbent: SEN. LUTHER OLSEN (R-Ripon)
Challenger: Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo)
Primary: July 12, General election: Aug. 9

Olsen, who has never faced a viable opponent in this traditionally Republican district, is one of the tougher targets for Democrats, and Clark's phone-bank gaffe only made things harder.

Incumbent: SEN. ROBERT WIRCH (D-Pleasant Prairie)
Challengers: Fred Ekornaas (R), Jonathan Steitz (R)
Primary: July 12, General election: Aug. 9

This is a classic swing district that Gov. Walker won in November. Wirch should be encouraged that liberal Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg carried it in April, indicating that Democrats in the area are energized.

Incumbent: SHEILA HARSDORF (R-River Falls)
Challenger: Shelly Moore (D)
Primary: July 12, General election: Aug. 9

The Daily Kos poll shows Harsdorf ahead by five points in the traditionally conservative district that Walker won handily and Supreme Court justice Prosser lost. Shelly Moore, a teacher, has come under fire for using a school computer for campaign purposes.

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