By Kirsten Adshead Wisconsin Reporter
Democrats may have an initial edge in the battle over control of the state Senate as petition drives to recall nearly half the chamber wind down, but political experts say don't count the GOP out just yet.
Experts say that Democrats have more than just numbers in their favor — but note that several GOP senators likely are safe, and that defeat for anyone is far from certain.
“All the speculation is a bit shaky due to the fact that special summer elections are super rare, and we have almost no real knowledge of what the dynamics will be as compared to say, regular presidential or midterm elections,” Edgewood College political scientist Steven Davis said in an email.
An organized effort by their state party, however, has Democrats in a strong starting position to at least make strides toward retaking control of the Senate.
Democrats need to pick up three seats to gain a 17-16 majority — and, potentially, to serve as a roadblock to legislation favored by Gov. Scott Walker
and the GOP-led Assembly. The legislation includes Walker's union reform proposals that prompted protests earlier this year and put Wisconsin in the national political spotlight.
That plan to limit collective bargaining powers for most state public union workers, and the circumstances surrounding its passage, has fed efforts to recall 16 state senators.
Some are upset that GOP senators voted for the proposal. Others are angry at Democratic senators for leaving the state in order to delay a vote on the legislation, which ultimately passed and was signed into law but is being held up by legal challenges.
Two months ago, recall efforts began against eight Republican and eight Democratic senators. The deadline for most of those efforts has passed or arrives next week.
So far, six Republicans and three Democrats will face recall elections this summer if the state Government Accountability Board determines that a sufficient number of valid signatures have been collected to prompt a recall against the lawmakers. Dane County Circuit Court Judge John W. Markson on Friday gave the GAB more time to review the signatures.
And a local organizer aiming to recall Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller
of Monona told the Wisconsin State Journal this week that the committee doesn’t have enough signatures to prompt a recall and won’t combine signatures with the Utah-based American Recall Coalition to make up the signature shortfall.
Recalls expert Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, said getting enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election is the big hurdle.
In Wisconsin, in order for a recall election to be held, a recall petition must be signed by a number of local qualified voters equal to 25 percent of that district’s vote in the previous gubernatorial election.
Depending on the Senate district, that’s between 11,000 and 21,000 votes. But all of the committees have gathered more than the minimum required in case the GAB rules that some of the signatures are invalid.
Spivak said there have been 20 state-level recalls in the United States. Of those, the incumbent has been recalled 13 times.
“There are many recall attempts and few get on the ballot, but once they get on the ballot, there’s a good chance of a recall,” he said.
An informal poll of political scientists around the state this week also revealed that most think two of the three most-vulnerable senators are in the GOP.
Sen. Dan Kapanke,
R-La Crosse, came in at No. 1 — because of the bipartisan nature of his district and the fact that his potential Democratic opponent, Rep. Jennifer Shilling
of La Crosse, is well-known, having represented her district since 2000.
“Although he has won consistently even when state and national Democrats have carried his district, Kapanke will probably have a hard time getting enough of his own supporters to the polls in an election (that is) just about him," said Arnold Shober, a Lawrence University political scientist.
Kapanke and his campaign manager did not respond to messages seeking a response Friday.
Hopper is estranged from his wife and has been hit by allegations that he began an affair with a Republican staffer who now has been given a job in the Walker administration.
Holperin’s district is centrist — he won his seat in 2008 with just 51 percent of the vote — and he’s already faced, and survived, a recall effort against him when he was a state assemblyman in 1990.
Democratic efforts to recall Republican senators have been tightly centralized. Media requests to members of individual recall campaigns, for example, frequently have been re-routed to the state Democratic Party.
The state party also is contributing significant money to protect its own senators — $60,000 to Holperin and $50,000 to Dave Hansen
of Green Bay so far, according to recent financial reports.
By contrast, efforts to recall GOP senators have been less coordinated and centralized within the state GOP.
Campaign finance reports, however, show strong support for some Republican senators, an indication that retaking the Senate may not be an easy task for Democrats, even with favorable numbers heading into the special-election season.
Political experts are split on how safe Sen. Alberta Darling
, R-River Hills, is, but generally agreed that she is not particularly vulnerable.
By some indications, though, she could be.
Darling was one of the senators specifically mentioned by the state Democratic Party in its initial effort to raise money to oust the eight GOP senators.
She won her 2008 election by only 1,007 votes.
Yet she did so in a year in which Democrats around the nation performed extremely well, and then presidential candidate Barack Obama easily won the state.
Darling’s fundraising, too, has been the strongest among the senators facing potential recalls, at least among those who have submitted financial reports thus far.
She has raised nearly $422,000 this year and spent about $206,000 — far outpacing any of the other senators.
Darling’s biggest contributors have been Ted Kellner of Fiduciary Management, $22,500; Daniel McKeithan of Tamarack Petroleum, $20,000; and Joe Alexander of Alexander Management, $10,000.
Democratic chances of pick-ups are limited if political experts are correct in saying that several senators are safe, based on the partisan make-up of their districts, how well they have performed in their previous elections and the extent to which unions are a presence in the districts.
Spivak, the recalls expert, said the numbers favor Democrats. But he noted that nowhere in history has a state faced this many recall elections at once – which makes it hard to predict the outcome.
Davis, the Edgewood College political scientist, agreed, and rattled off a number of unknowns that will determine the recall election results — fundraising, the ability of Democrats to turn rage over the collective bargaining issue into votes on Election Day and the level of participation among independents.
“Sorry to raise more questions than answers, but we are in uncharted territory here,” Davis said.