By Kevin Binversie
If last week was the main event, then Tuesday is the well-publicized undercard.
With control of the Wisconsin Senate no longer on the line, the state Senate recall races simply will decide the size of the Republican majority.
Democrats are protecting incumbent state Sens. Jim Holperin in the 12th Senate District and Robert Wirch in the 22nd Senate District. They were among other Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois for three weeks earlier this year to prevent a vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill, including limits on collective bargaining for some unionized state employees.
Republicans, meanwhile, hope to recoup losses from last week’s recall elections and increase their 17-seat majority in the upper chamber with challengers Kim Simac against Holperin and Jonathan Steitz against Wirch.
The 22nd District is in the southeast corner of the state, just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, and covers most of Kenosha County. Its major population centers are Kenosha, Pleasant Prairie and Burlington. Its population is a mix of rural farmers and suburbanites who work in neighboring Milwaukee and Chicago.
Steitz, 37, of Pleasant Prairie, is a former small businessman turned corporate lawyer for a firm out of Chicago. According to his campaign, he is a political newcomer.
On paper, this race is a likely Democratic hold. Wirch has been in the state Senate since 1996 and has rarely faced tough opposition in most of his past re-elections. His closest race was in 2004, when a young attorney from Kenosha named Reince Priebus came within 4 points of defeating him.
Priebus is now chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The 12th District, meanwhile, is the state’s largest Senate district geographically. It stretches over 10 counties and borders the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Its major population centers include Rhinelander, Eagle River, Merrill and Antigo. It is an area known mostly for its pristine woodlands, making it an ideal location for summer lake cottages and fall hunting lodges.
Simac, 52, of Eagle River, is a horse-riding instructor and children’s book author. While this, too, is her first run for public office, Simac is no stranger to politics. She was a founder of the Northwoods Patriots, a tea party group with some prominence in the district.
On paper, this is a toss-up race, and spending on it from both sides shows it. Both sides have been very aggressive with their ground games, sending any able-bodied politician and staffer wanting to help get out the vote in the heavily rural district. This is a race both sides openly have admitted could be too close to call. Turnout will the deciding factor.
If he wins, Holperin will be the first Wisconsin politician to avoid losing a recall election twice. In 1990, he was recalled as an assemblyman for his support of the then-hot-button issue of Native American spear-fishing rights.
No matter what happens, the public perception game will be pivotal for the winners. Democrats and labor will no doubt say last week was a fluke, and the recall momentum was with them all the time and is still there for a potential recall of Gov. Scott Walker next year. Republicans will claim that leaving the state to avoid tough votes does indeed carry a political price, and they too can play the recall game.
Whatever the outcome Tuesday, most Wisconsin voters will take a sigh of relief as the constant stream of television attack ads ends, and they return to the regularly scheduled programming for the August of a political off-year.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at [email protected]