The recall elections on the ballot next month in Wisconsin illustrate two realities about the current state of American politics.
First, victories — no matter how dramatic they might seem on election night — may be short-lived.
And second, partisan activists are going to extraordinary lengths, using whatever weapons at hand, to win.
If successful in elections on July 12 to recall six Republican state senators, Democrats will begin to reverse the GOP Wisconsin triumph of last fall, wreaking retribution on lawmakers for voting for Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to limit collective bargaining for government workers.
GOP's Wisconsin wave in 2010
It was only six months ago that Republicans nearly swept the ballot in Wisconsin, winning the governor’s race, taking control of the state legislature, booting out three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and winning two Democratic-held House seats.
Depending on the outcome of court battles, there will be recall contests next month for as many as six Republican state senators on July 12 and three Democratic senators one week later. The Republicans voted for Walker’s plan to curb public employee benefits; the Democrats fled the state to attempt to deny the Senate a quorum.
Litigation and primary challenges could push some of the elections back to August.
The Republicans enjoy a 19 to 14 majority in the state Senate, so a net gain of three seats would give Democrats control.
Recall of the GOP senators would be a prelude for an effort early next year to recall Walker himself. Under Wisconsin law, more than 540,000 signatures would be required to put the governor’s recall on the ballot.
No specific grounds are required to launch a recall in Wisconsin, but it cannot begin during an incumbent’s first year in office.
The recall elections can be a trial run for both parties to test their get-out-the-vote efforts and to assemble up-to-date lists of voters.
Leading indicators for 2012?
The recall contests in Wisconsin will also give an insight into voter sentiment in a crucial state: it has an open seat Senate contest in 2012 and it can be competitive in presidential elections: George W. Bush lost it by only 0.4 percent in 2004 and 0.2 percent in 2000.
Two state Senate districts where a recall will be on the ballot could be good leading indicators for 2012: state Sen. Randy Hopper’s district which includes Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, and Sen. Alberta Darling’s in the northern Milwaukee suburbs.
Hopper won in 2008 by a mere 184 votes out of a total of more than 83,000 votes cast. Hopper’s state Senate district went for Barack Obama with 52 percent of the vote in 2008, according to calculations by David Nir of the liberal web site Daily Kos, confirmed by msnbc.com.
Likewise, Darling won her seat in 2008 with a margin of only 1,007 out of a total of more than 99,000 votes cast. Her district, too, went narrowly for Obama in 2008.
GOP recruiting candidates for Democratic primaries
As first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday, the Republicans are encouraging Republican or conservative candidates to run in primaries against the would-be Democrat challengers.
Even though these GOP-supported primary candidates would almost certainly lose, by forcing primary elections they would give GOP incumbents more time to prepare their defenses.
“This effort is about making sure our candidates have enough time to mount successful campaigns,” Stephan Thompson, the executive director of Republican Party of Wisconsin, told msnbc.com.
“These protest candidates are going to give an extra four weeks for a general election. This will ensure that our senators have enough time to get out their message. And it’s a protest: Republicans think it’s ridiculous that our guys are being recalled for doing their jobs.”
Although Democrats are crying foul, Thompson said Democrats did the same thing last year in a state assembly race in Wisconsin, recruiting a candidate to run as a Republican against a Democrat who had turned independent. That effort failed.
But Phil Walzak, a spokesman for the Democratic coordinated campaign in Wisconsin, disputed Thompson's account, saying that candidate was not supported by the Democratic Party.
For the Republicans to try to force primary elections is "an act of desperation" and "is going to backfire," said Walzak.
The fact that Democrats got enough signatures to force six Republican state senators to face recall and Republicans are only challenging three Democrats doesn’t indicate less enthusiasm on the GOP side, Thompson said.
“We could have (attempted to) recall more but what we ended determining that we wanted to focus our efforts on the three Democrat senators who we felt are most vulnerable: Jim Holperin, Bob Wirch, and Dave Hansen," he said. "We feel that they are all very vulnerable for their actions in running away from the state and deserting their constituents.”
If Democrats succeed ...
Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said if Democrats are successful in the recall elections, it will signify “a rejection of the extreme agenda that the right wing has pushed since the 2010 elections, not just in Wisconsin but everywhere. And Republicans may take note of the results.”
Fiddler said the outcome of the recall election could have an effect on redistricting, as the legislature redraws the lines of the state’s eight seats in the House of Representatives. (The state’s delegation in D.C. is now split, five Republicans to three Democrats.)
Especially in need of protection as the new maps are drawn would be first-term Republicans Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble, both of whom won what had been Democratic held seats last fall. With Democrats needing a net gain of 24 to regain control of the House, any small edge could be decisive.
Since Wisconsin is home to two Republicans the Democrats love to hate, Walker and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, author of the proposed Medicare redesign which Democrats loathe, progressives see the state as Ground Zero in the battle over worker rights and entitlement spending.
Daniel Mintz, campaign director for the liberal group Moveon.org, which has raised more than $2 million for the recall effort, noted that Wisconsin “has become perhaps the critical battle in that fight,” he said. “There’s no question that enough of these districts are in play in these recall elections that we could flip the state Senate and that would put an end to Gov. Walker’s ability to force through his anti-worker policies.”
Moveon.org initially raised money to help the Wisconsin Democratic Party in its signature gathering effort. Now Moveon.org will focus on independent spending on advertising and on get-out-the-vote efforts. It has 98,000 members in Wisconsin.
The last Wisconsin lawmaker to be recalled, state senator Gary George, a Democrat, in 2003, was under federal indictment for taking kickbacks and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the scheme. But recall in Wisconsin doesn’t require alleged misconduct or crime.
A recall resurgence
Recall is one of the reforms enacted in several states by the Populists and Progressives of the late 1800s and early 1900s to make government more responsive to the will of the people. Nineteen states have laws allowing recall of state officials.
While the 2003 Republican recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in California is the most famous recent case, it’s now Democrats who seem more taken with using the weapon.
“We’re seeing a resurgence of the recall right now,” said Jennie Bowser, a recall expert at the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
She points to a recall effort in Arizona against Republican state senate president Russell Pearce, the chief advocate of the state’s anti-illegal immigration law which the Obama administration is trying to overturn in federal court, and in Michigan against Republican Gov. Snyder and several GOP state legislators.
But Wisconsin is “absolutely unique,” Bowser said. “To see that many recall efforts launched at the same time and get to the point of an election is really remarkable and may have served as an example to other states. It may have energized campaigns that might have faltered for lack of resources and lack of inspiration.”
For beleaguered incumbents, political consultants, activists, and voters, recall is giving a new meaning to the phrase “the permanent campaign.”