MILWAUKEE—On February 11, Wisconsin’s newly minted Republican governor, Scott Walker, unveiled his budget-repair bill, a controversial proposal to curb collective bargaining for public employees, boost their pension contributions, and require a plebiscite to increase their pay above the rate of inflation. “We must take immediate action to ensure fiscal stability in our state,” Walker said that day. The following week, thousands of public employees and political activists assembled at the Wisconsin Capitol to protest, and it became clear that the governor’s path to fiscal stability would be paved with a historic level of political instability.
After the ensuing discord, nine state senators—six Republicans and three Democrats—face recall elections this summer. Ostensibly, these are referenda on the Republican agenda in Wisconsin. Democrats and liberal groups are infuriated by a plan to roll back what they see as essential protections for workers. Republicans are flummoxed by Democrats’ refusal to behave like the minority and concede that they won’t get their way in the Legislature.
But instead of a reflection on the parochial travails of Wisconsin, the recall elections have turned into referenda on the nationwide agendas of both parties. A review of demographic data, campaign ads, and advocacy groups’ efforts suggests that what was supposed to be a local affair has become a testing ground for, and possibly a harbinger of, the 2012 election. Democrats in several key districts are telling their constituents that the GOP would cut back on Medicare, per Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan; Republicans are bird-dogging the theme that Democrats, enamored of big government, simply aren’t serious about responsible accounting.
In the same way that the Spanish Civil War offered a preview of the tactics and tools of World War II, Wisconsin—the birthplace of both the Republican Party and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union—has emerged as a laboratory for broader Republican and Democratic arguments.
In some ways, Wisconsin is a neat microcosm for the country writ large. Although it has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in the past six cycles, it remains very purple, with geographic divisions, a polarized electorate, and a tendency to swing back and forth. Republicans hold a 19-14 advantage in the state Senate.
President Obama won 56 percent of Wisconsin’s voters in 2008, but in 2010, the Badger State swung hard in the other direction. Voters unseated 18-year Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold and elected Walker in an open race. Republicans also picked up two U.S. House seats. “You had kind of a perfect storm of a terrible economic downturn [and] a backlash that energized conservatives and unnerved independents,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. “And third was disenchantment among the Democrats and other voters [who supported] Obama in 2008.”
It wasn’t just the outcome that mirrored the rest of the nation. Democrats’ problems in Wisconsin reflected bigger trends afoot in 2010. Obama had carried 54 percent of the state’s white vote in 2008, including 52 percent of white voters without a college education, according to the 2008 National Election Pool exit poll by Edison/Mitofsky. But in 2010, Feingold won only 48 percent of the white vote, attracting just 40 percent of white voters without a college degree. That affliction was emblematic of what happened to national Democrats in the midterms.
Although the state’s recall elections (which begin on July 12 and last until August 16) are unique and far from perfect barometers, the demographic data suggest opportunities for Democrats to recapture support among key groups they lost in 2010—making each party’s modes of attack worthy of closer consideration.
DEFINING THE ISSUES
The GOP-controlled Legislature passed Walker’s controversial measure over the protests of teachers and other public employees. Democratic state senators also put up a fight, at one point decamping for Illinois to deny Republicans a quorum. Eventually, Senate Republicans overcame the opposition with a procedural tactic, stripping the bill of its fiscal components to pass it with a simple majority vote; on March 11, Walker signed it.
Then the blowback began. Wisconsin is one of just 19 states that allow voters to remove state officials from office before the end of their term. Only two state lawmakers have been removed in this way, but after Walker signed the bill, opponents targeted all eight eligible GOP state senators. They managed to trigger elections in six districts. Meanwhile, a counter-counteroffensive launched an effort to recall the eight eligible Democrats of 14 who left for Illinois during the showdown; three now face recall elections.
One of the most vulnerable Republicans is Randy Hopper of the state’s 18th Senate District, which includes Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. He won a first term in 2008 over Democrat Jessica King by just 163 votes out of more than 83,000 cast. Obama won the district in 2008, but it tilted heavily Republican in 2010; Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson won with more than 57 percent of the vote.
Nevertheless, liberal activists are bullish about their chances there because the district has four prisons staffed by public employees. “I’m facing a recall because people didn’t like the way I made a vote,” Hopper says. “This entire thing is about the budget-repair vote.”
King, who is challenging Hopper again, has tried to connect the efforts to limit public employees’ rights to similar battles in other states. “You’re expressing something that I hear expressed from a lot of people right now,” she told an audience at a meet-and-greet. “They see this out-of-state, extreme playbook, and it’s being presented by a lot of the freshman Republican governors.”
The attempt to link Wisconsin to the national GOP agenda is even more explicit in the 32nd Senate District on the west side of the state, represented by Republican Dan Kapanke. A glance at the numbers illustrates his plight: Obama won more than 60 percent of the vote there in 2008. Even Feingold took that constituency in 2010, despite losing his statewide reelection battle. (Walker eked out a narrow victory there.)
In the same way that the Spanish Civil War offered a preview of the tactics and tools of World War II, Wisconsin has emerged as a laboratory for broader Republican and Democratic arguments.
So Democrats are reprising a strategy they used in a special election earlier this year for New York’s 26th Congressional District: They are trying to tie Kapanke to U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan, who unveiled a plan to revamp Medicare by turning it into a voucher program for those currently under 55. “The average voter I don’t think makes a huge distinction between what Scott Walker is saying and what Paul Ryan is saying,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
Democrats are seizing on a comment that Kapanke made in an August 2010 interview with the La Crosse Tribune that he liked “just about every part” of Ryan’s then-tentative plan to remake Medicare and Social Security, which the congressional lawmaker spelled out in more detail this year. Now, Kapanke’s likely Democratic opponent in the recall has already run a television ad featuring a man who says, “You can’t support Paul Ryan’s plan and get my vote.”
Liberal activists are mounting the same kind of attack in the 8th Senate District against 19-year incumbent Alberta Darling. She cochairs the state’s Joint Finance Committee, which makes her a symbolic target. Even though her district—which includes parts of Milwaukee County and its northern suburbs—leans Republican, Democrats have jumped on footage from a June fundraiser in which Darling calls Ryan a “hero” and says she would stand with him “anytime, anywhere.” The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal political action committee, is planning to run a television ad using the video to tie Darling to Ryan.
Now that support for the Ryan plan could prove to be a liability, Darling is rushing to distance herself. During a Sunday afternoon canvass in Germantown late last month, she told National Journal that she had “no comment” about Ryan’s plans to revamp Medicare. “I didn’t say I supported his Medicare effort,” she insisted. “What did I say exactly? I said I will stand with Paul Ryan, because he is a leader.”
Darling’s likely Democratic opponent is state Rep. Sandy Pasch, a nurse. She is critical of GOP cuts in public education but says that the recall is about more than just the collective-bargaining dispute. “If you stand with Paul Ryan, you stand with the promise to end health care for our seniors,” she said in an online chat last month. Pasch backpedaled a bit in an interview with NJ—“It was taken out of context,” she said—but she noted, “What I do stand with is [that] he will be decreasing access to health care.”
For their part, Republicans say that these are merely arguments of last resort for Democrats who aren’t finding enough traction with their defense of public-employee unions. “To me it shows their original recall was supposed to be on collective bargaining; that’s not taking it home for them,” Darling said of the attacks. “They have to find something.” She said she is working to underscore the importance of reining in spending.
Republican Luther Olsen, who is trying to hold on to his job in the state’s 14th Senate District, says he is baffled by the Democratic strategy. Olsen’s district is another area that went for Obama in 2008 but reversed course in 2010. He predicts that the effort to link local candidates with Ryan will only backfire. “I’m surprised, because there’s a lot of people who think Paul Ryan should run for president,” Olsen told Milwaukee’s Fox Television affiliate in June. “So if you’re hooking Paul Ryan to recall Republicans, that’s probably a good thing.”
ON THE OUTSIDE
Another similarity between the Wisconsin recall elections and the 2012 presidential contest is the unprecedented reach of third-party groups. We Are Wisconsin, a group that arose out of this year’s protests, registered a PAC with the state in May to do direct advocacy. It is working with other outside groups on the left, including EMILY’s List, the League of Conservation Voters, and Democracy for America, which is partnering with PCCC on a joint ad program planned to cost at least $500,000.
Meanwhile, the Club for Growth Wisconsin has already begun airing ads, including a spot that goes after Democratic challenger Shelly Moore in the state’s 10th Senate District. Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin is focused on turning out voters. “I think it’ll be into seven figures, collectively, in all these races,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks spending. McCabe points to an April state Supreme Court election in which 35 outside groups spent a total of $4.5 million in the two months before the vote. Those figures are very high for a state judicial race and could easily be eclipsed during the recalls.
Wisconsin may be a microcosm for next November’s election in one more way. Democrats and Republicans agree that turnout will matter and that few voters are undecided. King has warned supporters that 30 percent of the nearly 23,000 people who signed the petition to recall Hopper have never voted before. In the 8th District, both candidates are making concerted efforts to woo seniors, who generally turn out in large numbers. In which case, the 2012 presidential contest could feel a lot like déjà vu.
This article appears in the July 9, 2011, edition of National Journal.