By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — So much for anti-climactic.
For those who thought Tuesday’s last round of Senate recall elections would somehow fade gently into that good night now that the GOP has held power, well, they might be the same folks who bought into the pre-poll numbers before this week’s onslaught of voter verdicts.
After six Republican incumbents faced judgment day in super recall Tuesday, surviving four of the contests and giving the GOP a 17-16 edge in the Senate, it’s the Democrats’ turn.
Two Dems — Sen. Robert Wirch in the 22nd Senate District, and Jim Holperin in the 12th — are on the ousting block for what their opponents charge was dereliction of duty. Wirch, of Pleasant Prairie, and Holperin, of Conover, joined 12 other Democratic senators who fled the state to stall a vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial budget reform bill and its collective bargaining limits.
The mud and muck of this messy summer of recall elections kicked up all over the 22nd Senate District, in Wisconsin’s far southeast corner, this week, when Democrats attempted to make hay over Wirch challenger Jonathan Steitz‘s legal troubles.
Steitz, an attorney and political newcomer from Kenosha, faced allegations that he violated Kenosha’s sex offender registry ordinance by renting an apartment to an out-of-state sex offender last year. The Kenosha News reported that the city attorney would refer the matter to police for further investigation.
Steitz’s property is less than 2,500 feet from a school.
What the Dems didn’t say is what Steitz told Wisconsin Reporter on Friday.
“It’s politically motivated,” the Senate hopeful said.
Steitz acknowledges that he did unknowingly rent to a man who had a sex crime conviction as a juvenile. By law, that information is sealed.
“I had no way of knowing about it,” he said. “He still had the responsibility to register when he moved to Wisconsin. The police department contacted me, and I fully cooperated.”
Steitz said the man was arrested and is no longer a tenant.
“I’m the father of four young children, so the suggestion that I would knowingly rent to a sex offender is completely absurd,” the candidate said, adding Wirch should be “ashamed of himself” for the kind of campaign he’s running.
Wirch did not return two phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
The incumbent is facing a credibility question. A Wirch campaign flier says the senator “helped bring Uline (a distributor of industrial and packaging materials) to our area – creating 800 local jobs.”
Company owners issued a statement earlier this month refuting Wirch’s claims.
“We worked with a variety of state and local officials during the relocation process; however, state Sen. Wirch was not one of them,” they said.
For the campaign’s boast, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact Wisconsin’s Truth-O-Meter gave Wirch a “Pants on Fire” rating, calling the claim “not only false but ridiculous.”
Both candidates are stumping harder than ever, making campaign stops with political heavyweights and deploying an army of volunteers.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, campaigned for Steitz on Thursday afternoon in Kenosha.
“These recall elections are a vindication that the new leadership in Madison is taking us in the right direction.,” Ryan told Steitz supporters. “They are cutting spending, getting taxes down, so we can create jobs.”
Wirch, at a campaign stop, said he brought out a bigger dog, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, to help fire up the Wisconsin party faithful in the hours ticking down to the recall election.
In the far northeastern portion of the state, Wisconsin’s massive 12th Senate District has seen an unprecedented level of campaign cash dumped on it by third-party interests.
Cold north, hot race
The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending, estimates that independent groups have dropped more than $4 million on the race, pitting incumbent Holperin against Kim Simac, a Republican business owner from Eagle River.
The candidates, as of Friday, had spent about $500,000.
The latest campaign ad attacking Holperin picks up on the charge that he was derelict in his duties to his constituents.
“Jim Holperin: Left the state. Left the budget in Crisis,” the commercial said. “Government unions from Washington want to take over Wisconsin government,” and “Democrat senators like Jim Holperin did their bidding.”
Holperin said that kind of characterization has split the district right down the middle.
“For every individual I run into going door to door who believes I was derelict in my duty because I delayed a vote on collective bargaining, I find another voter who says, ‘You were doing your job. You were right to use that procedural technique to delay the vote. Thank you,’” the senator said.
That even divide in sentiment, Holperin said, is why the race is expected to be so close.
But the incumbent says the argument has dwindled in recent weeks, that more attention has turned to his challenger, who has been a no-show in the media and has declined to debate.
“The Wausau Daily Herald in their endorsement of me said I was more likely to show up and do the job,” he said.
Simac said big labor, special interest groups have hit her hard with attack ads, trying to distract voters from the real issue — their senator skipped out for a crucial vote.
“Up here, the negative ads that have been placed against me have been very discouraging, not only for me but for the voters,” the Republican said.
Simac said her campaign is feeling confident, and the ground game, not special interests, will determine the race.
While the glare of the national spotlight may have gone away after the six Republican recall elections, there remains something at stake in Tuesday’s two-election show.
Democrats need a hold. Losing one seat would increase the GOP’s Senate margin by three; losing two would return the balance of power to a 19-14 Republican advantage – back where Wisconsin politics started on the eve of the recall drive.
Holperin downplays the notion that Democrats have an enhanced sense of urgency.
“I don’t think many voters are thinking that way,” the incumbent said. “In many ways, this is just like a regular election. They’re looking at two candidates, and they are making a choice between the two. They’re looking at the candidates and making judgments that way.”