First recall election in Wisconsin kicks off

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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On Tuesday the Wisconsin recall elections begins in earnest, with Democratic State Senator Dave Hansen facing off against the Republican challenger David VanderLeest in the first actual recall election.

Initially Republicans saw it as their “second best chance to pick off a Democrat,” said University of Wisconsin, Madison political science professor Charles Franklin in a conversation exactly a month ago.

The district itself does not lean strongly Republican or strongly Democrat — “it hasn’t gone big for Obama or Walker,” explained Franklin. Moreover, Hansen’s opponent the last time around was fairly weak, so there was hope that a stronger opponent could oust him.

Unfortunately for Republicans, VanderLeest is not that strong opponent they might have been searching for. The wind farm developer has raised a total of just $2,000 for his campaign, a pittance compared to his opponent’s $318,000 haul since April.

He also has a criminal record, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, “including a couple of disorderly conduct convictions, $25,000 in unpaid property taxes and allegations of domestic abuse.”

A Daily Kos poll released Monday found that 62 percent of likely voters in SD-30 said they would vote for Hansen, and just 34 percent said they would vote for VanderLeest.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, VanderLeest was not the Republicans first choice. The party’s candidate of choice was State Rep. John Nygren. He received just slightly more than the required amount of signatures on his recall petition. Democrats challenged, and Nygren was left with only 398 valid signatures: two signatures shy of the required 400.

Republicans have not exactly rallied around VanderLeest.

According to the Journal Sentinel: “Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate – the GOP’s committee to support candidates in that house – was not providing any help to VanderLeest.”

Fitzgerald told the Journal Sentinel that it was “a ‘debacle’ that the preferred GOP candidate, Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, was unable to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot. Fitzgerald accepted part of the responsibility for that.”

Democrats are already declaring victory.

“It’s very exciting that Dave Hansen is holding the seat,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesperson Gillian Morris.

“We’re going to save Dave,” she added later.

Nonetheless, Hansen and the Democrats are leaving nothing to chance.

They have “run a negative ad campaign against VanderLeest based on his problems with the court,” said Franklin, “and why that makes him a poor choice for state senate from their point of view.” (Former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty backs Wisconsin Gov. Walker on union standoff)

A big question in the race is turnout. Voters aren’t used to having to go to the polls in July, and many are likely vacationing for the summer, so it’s unclear how many people will actually turn up to the polls.

In the Democratic primaries last week, turnout was surprisingly high. But it remains to be seen whether or not that will translate into this race, or either of the two Republican primaries that are taking place on Tuesday.

The Democrats are very well organized and are coming into this race with a lot of momentum, noted UW Green Bay associate professor emeritus of political science David Littig. In organizing protests in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to limit collecting bargaining rights of unions, the Democratic set up their network.

“This thing built up a lot of organized ground troops, and everybody is well connected with social networks,” said Littig. “The early ground campaign organizing was done in the protest politics phase,” he continued, something he says will be an “asset to the Democrats coming in.”

At stake is control of the state senate. Democrats need to win three additional seats, and not lose any of the ones they currently hold, in order to gain a majority in the senate. If they can do that, “they’ll control the state senate and therefore be able to block anything that Walker and the Republicans would like to do,” said Franklin.

On the other hand, should Democrats fail to take a majority, or even lose seats, it “gives the party and the governor a signal that they can and should move forward.”

Additionally, these races “may be a signal about whether Walker is vulnerable to a recall.”

But the races have drawn significant national attention as well, with outside groups jumping into the race and throwing money into ads and Get Out The Vote efforts. Many see the recall races as a kind of proxy vote on collective bargaining rights — one that could send a message to the entire country.

Franklin explained that for the out-of-state audience, the focus is how the public feels about collective bargaining rights. On the one hand, there was Chris Christie, who made collective bargaining and public employee salaries an “important part of his agenda.” Then, Franklin continued, you had another round of 2010 governors who “followed in his footsteps” after being elected – governors like Walker and Ohio governor John Kasich.

Their efforts have been met with “different levels of acrimony,” though Christie appears to have “survived with reasonably high popularity,” Franklin says.

The question is how much of a role this agenda should play in the Republican platform: if they lose, the voters will have spoken out against it. If “Republicans hold on to it,” Franklin says, “that energizes that agenda.”

Interests groups are determined to make sure it goes the way they want it to. Emily’s List is one such group, which has run two campaign ads thus far and has been actively supporting the Democratic candidates, in particular the six Democratic women who are challenging Republican incumbents.

“Republicans across the country pulled a bait and switch on voters,” explained Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List. “They campaigned on jobs and then turned around to pursue this radical anti-worker, anti-family agenda. Their overreach in Wisconsin ignited the nation — it energized Democrats everywhere to stand up and fight back.”

Two primary elections will also be held on Tuesday.

In Wisconsin’s 12th senatorial district, where the Democratic incumbent Jim Holperin is considered the Republican’s best shot for knocking out a Democrat, two Republican challengers will compete to see who will face off with Holperin in a month. Kim Simac, a tea partier, is considered the favorite. She is running against Robert Lussow, the former Lincoln County Board Chair.

Jonathan Steitz, a lawyer making his first run for public office, and Fred Ekornaas, a former sheriff who is currently serving as the County Board Vice Chairman for Kenosha County, will compete in the Republican primary in the SD-22. The seat is currently held by Democrat Robert Wirch.