Wisconsin’s recall election: Voters react to anti-union Republicans

by Dr Scott Denton

For Republicans, Wisconsin is steeped with tradition. A little white school house in Ripon, Wisconsin, is the equivalent of the Australian Labor Party’s ghost gumtree in Barcaldine, Queensland: they are both foundational images of the Party’s past. It was in Ripon where the Republican Party was founded in 1854. While notionally over time a ‘red’ state, Obama won there in 2008 with 56 per cent of the vote and Bush only just lost there in 2004 (only by 11 000 out of almost three million voters). In November 2010 voters elected Republican Scott Walker as Governor of Wisconsin.

In July and August, voters in Wisconsin again went to the polls in recall elections that will determine the fate of Walker and his fellow Republican Senators. Walker has been a controversial figure in Wisconsin politics since he was elected and this recall election, pushed by the Democrats, aimed to see them defeated in the state senate. Prior to the recall election, the Senate was held by the Republicans by a margin of 19 to 14. With six Republican Senators facing recall elections, Democrats hope to regain control of the chamber by winning three Senate districts.

On 19 July Republican David VanderLeest was defeated by Democrat Dave Hansen. VanderLeest was plagued by a series of legal and financial problems that included unpaid property taxes and arrests for domestic violence. Hansen won the 30th Senate district with 65 per cent of the vote in the election. He was a leading Democrat in the campaign for the recall elections. The second ballot held on 9 August will be followed by the last recall ballot on 16 August.

The Democrats, including Hansen, first however had to stave off a primary challenge from the Walker Republicans. In Wisconsin, unlike most American states, Republicans can run in Democrat primaries and vis-a-versa. Having defeated the six Republicans who challenged the Wisconsin Democrats in their primaries, the six Republican Senators who supported Walkers controversial “anti-union” legislation will be forced to defend their seats after recall petitions were signed by thousands of disgruntled voters.

Facing a US$137 million budget deficit, in February 2011, Walker announced plans to increase public service workers contributions to 5.8 per cent of their salaries to state pension and pay at least 12.6 per cent of their health-care premiums. At the same time he cut the collective bargaining rights of public workers and their unions, in effect taking away most of their unions’ ability to bargain as well as forcing all unions to get recertified every year by vote. Only firefighters and police were exempt. When unions responded with a planned strike, Walker announced he would call out the National Guard. In March 2011, Walker signed into law what is commonly referred to as the “anti-union” bill. The signing followed months of protests, which according to one news report, “turned Wisconsin into a national political battleground.” Democrats attempted to stop the legislation from reaching the Senate floor by leaving the state and immediately began cir culating recall petitions. A recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote or plebiscite, initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition.

In Wisconsin, any elected state official who is more than a year into their term can be recalled. That requirement is why Governor Walker was not vulnerable to recall. To recall a state senator, petitioners must gather signatures equal to 25 percent of the votes cast for governor in that district in the last gubernatorial election. Eight Democrats and eight Republicans had been in office long enough to be targeted. Campaigns were launched against all sixteen, but petitioners only gathered enough signatures to recall six Republicans and three Democrats.Most at risk were the three Republican Senators, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke; all three barely won their seats in 2008. Darling in particular only won her seat by 1 007 votes (from more than 99 000 votes cast) and was seen as the most vulnerable of the Republicans. Her district supported Barack Obama in 2008. Darling, is co-chair of the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee that authored Walker's budget bills. The three Republican considered likely to survive were Senators Robert Cowles, Sheila Harsdorf and Luther Olsen. The three Democrats recalled expected to be returned. Democrats, amid an economic slump and high unemployment, looked to the recall for vindication. For Republicans, victory in the recall campaign would vindicate their spending cuts and new business-friendly policies, while raising hopes of President Obama losing next year in a swing state he won by 14 points in 2008. The Democrats’ strategy was based on voter belief that Republicans had gone too far in attacking workers’ rights.

A University of Wisconsin poll conducted in July showed 59 per cent of voters disapproved of Walker, but 48 per cent also disapproved of the Democratic state senators. Fifty-six per cent disapproved of the Republican-controlled legislature’s actions.

The significance of the recall ballots is reflected by the fact that national conservative groups and national unions have spent millions of dollars in the contested districts, six of which are held by Republicans. About 50 groups have so far spent over US$5 million in TV, radio and direct mail advertising to influence whether Republicans or Democrats control a majority in the Wisconsin state Senate. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign claims that US$30 million has been spent by pro and anti-recall forces.

Apart from polarising Democrats and Republicans in an “ugly” election, the recall election has focused some attention (again) on the need for finance reform. As one commentator put it; “recalls may offer the best argument for holding such elections only in the cases of exceptionally egregious behavior by a politician.”

The political cost of this recall election is far greater than the tens of millions spent. It has cost the Democrats and the unions a great deal of political capital without significant gain. As Michael Paarlberg reported; “Labor unions had bet enormous sums of money, and much of their credibility” on the recall and the defeat of at least three Republicans but “came up short”. After the mobilisation of tens of thousands of outraged workers in February, culminating in an extended occupation of the state capitol, Democrats attempted to use the grassroots movement to gain control over one chamber of the state legislature, an act that has been considered as self-serving, and appears to have backfired.

Democrats succeeded in replacing two Republicans, narrowing the Republican margin to one seat in the Wisconsin upper house. Republican Senators Kapanke and Hopper lost, but Darling won with 54 per cent, appearing to consolidate the Republican vote in Republican districts hence countering Democrats gains elsewhere. Hopper lost his seat to Democrat Jessica King, the candidate he defeated in 2008 by only 163 votes. Kapanke’s defeat was blamed on the “Democratic-leaning district" that he narrowly held. He lost the seat to Democratic state representative Jennifer Shilling.

Rather that suggesting a small victory for the Republicans and Darling, the politicised nature of the campaign motivated Republican’s to vote, thus allowing them to hold onto a slim majority and allowing Darling to survive the recall. Democrats and unions have vowed to continue in efforts to see Walker himself recalled. Republicans have promised that their movement is just getting started and will defend the likely recall of Walker in a few months.
As is being reported, while there is a risk of extrapolating too much from Wisconsin results, the outcome will give strategists on both sides of politics an inkling about party motivation and organising ability in the upcoming 2012 election – especially in state that will be pivotal to the outcome. Wisconsin is considered a state Obama almost certainly needs to carry if he is to be reelected.

Bio: Dr Scott Denton completed a PhD on Australian electoral politics in 2010. He is an academic at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He regularly writes on Australian and American elections and electoral history.