It's the day before the May 8 recall primary, and things are quiet at the Johnson Street headquarters of the state Republican Party. GOP communications director Ben Sparks is there, along with a few other well-groomed young men talking on phones.
With few undecided voters in the state, turnout is expected to be key in the June 5 recall election between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Sparks says much will come down to the fractious nature of the Democratic effort versus the GOP's more centralized get-out-the-vote operation.
"Our ground game and grassroots efforts are run through the Republican Party of Wisconsin," Sparks says. "Every single field office is run through us. Every single get-out-the-vote initiative will be put out through us."
Centralization means efficiency, Sparks argues. "Because we do everything, we're able to scrub our lists and make sure we have the most up-to-date data possible. These liberal groups are unable to do that because they're not sure who the other guys are calling. They may not be saying the same thing. For all intents and purposes they could be calling people who've already voted…. All these liberal groups are not able to coordinate, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure a lot of them even want to."
We Are Wisconsin strategist Kelly Steele calls Sparks' clichéd vision of crazy-cat Democrats "moronic" and "wishful" thinking. Labor coalition We Are Wisconsin is one of the liberal organizations, along with United Wisconsin and others, working to oust Walker. Steele says his side's efforts are every bit as robust as the GOP's.
And some say Walker's opponents have an ace in the hole: a database of people who would like to see the governor recalled. "Democrats have the petition that some 900,000 people signed," says UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. "That's a very good place for them to mobilize from. It wouldn't take much more than that to win a recall election."
Republicans say they have been busy making calls to motivate their base. In a press release late last week, the party boasted that 2 million voter contact calls had been made since January, more than the total number of voter contact calls made by Republican volunteers in the 2010 election cycle.
Calls and canvass drives come from 20 Republican "Victory Centers," clustered most heavily in the eastern part of the state. At the Madison-area Victory Center on Cahill Main in Fitchburg, rows of phone banks stood empty mid-afternoon Thursday. Sparks did not follow up on a request by Isthmus to interview GOP volunteers.
Dane County is not a natural get-out-the-vote focus for the GOP. With a recent Rasmussen poll saying that just 2% of Wisconsinites haven't made up their minds on Walker, the parties' bases become key. That points to a heavy push in the Republican strongholds of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, according to UW-La Crosse professor Joe Heim.
Democrats need to be the get-out-the-vote monsters in Dane County. And Democrats will have their work cut out for them in Milwaukee, which usually trails the state in turnout. "The conventional wisdom has been that a Democrat to win statewide needs about 55% of the vote in Milwaukee," Heim says.
Statewide, the GOP's Sparks says he doubts union volunteers will fight full bore for Barrett, given his friction with AFSCME, the state largest public employees union, and other unions. AFSCME has accused Barrett of using ACT 10 - the law signed by Walker that curtails collective bargaining rights for most public workers - to force deep concessions from Milwaukee's public employees.
And what about the time unions lost by supporting former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in the Democratic primary? Burden doesn't see it as a disadvantage.
"Advocating for Falk and creating a competitive primary was probably just as important for turnout as focusing on turnout explicitly," says Burden. "Now is the time to perfect the party's get-out-the-vote efforts."
If you get a call for Barrett, it may be from the We Are Wisconsin field office at Madison's Labor Temple Hall on Park Street. You may also hear from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's field office on Bassett Street. On a midday visit last Thursday, about a dozen people were working the phones.
One of them, volunteer Anne Hart, a gerontologist, has been working on the recall effort since last fall. She puts in 10 to 15 hours a week, canvassing door to door as well.
Hart says the state's new Voter ID law is a problem for many voters she talks to. "It's really big and confusing," she says. "They ask, 'Where do I go, what do I need?'"
Although the photo-ID requirements of the new law will be under a court injunction for the June 5 election, volunteer Nancy Dodge takes the opportunity to educate voters on the law in case it is reinstated for the November elections. "It would be very smart as long as we are speaking with them to make sure they've got proper ID," she says.
The volunteers knock on doors of targeted voters the Democrats see as supportive, so it's not a hard sell. Dodge and Hart say they usually don't engage heavily on issues. "It's more reminding them about the date because it's a very odd date for an election," says Hart.
While the recall effort may have grown out of Walker's assault on collective bargaining, Dodge and Hart provide a broad litany of complaints about Walker.
"There are so many other reasons to recall Walker that the union issue has taken a backseat to the environmental issues, women's issues, the consolidation of power, education, health care, voter suppression, the sneaky Legislature, the cronyism, the fact that he's never in the state," says Dodge.
Both volunteers say the commitment on their side is deep. "The adrenaline and the energy are just ferocious," says Hart.