Wisconsin union debate shifts to recall elections

MADISON, Wis. — Nearly a month after the Wisconsin standoff over union rights ended, some of the fervor from that debate has shifted to recall efforts targeting lawmakers in both parties — Republicans who voted to cut back collective bargaining and Democrats who fled the state to try to stop them.

Now that the law has passed, organizers are focusing on signature-gathering efforts. But of the 16 state senators who were originally targeted, only six appear likely to face an election threatening removal. And before recall elections can be held, supporters need to find candidates to run against the incumbents.

Still, voter outrage remains high in many places, helping to stir interest in the recalls.

“A lot of legislators are going to be looking over their shoulders a little more in the future,” said Michael Kraft, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. “And if they are in the middle of a recall effort, they might be nervous about that. They might moderate what they say and how they approach the budget.”

Last week, Democrats filed their first petition to try to recall a GOP senator who supported Gov. Scott Walker’s law, which eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees.

Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse represents a Democratic-leaning district in western Wisconsin. Two other Republican senators and three Democrats also face probable recall elections.

At first, the recall efforts were a sideshow to the larger political battle unfolding in Madison. But depending on how many recall elections take place and how many incumbents, if any, are kicked out, the process could profoundly affect Walker’s agenda.

If Republicans lose just three seats, they would give up their 19-14 majority and with it the power that allowed them to aggressively push the legislation through despite ear-splitting protests that drew tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol.

Walker signed the measure March 11. It is being challenged in court.

If a judge rules that the bill was improperly passed, the Senate could be forced to vote on the law again. And if two senators were to switch sides, their votes (combined with that of the sole dissenting Republican), could defeat the measure.

In another sign that Walker’s union law is still on many minds, a state Supreme Court race exploded last week into a hotly debated contest that some people viewed as a referendum on Walker’s policies. A little-known liberal challenger tapped into voter anger in her attempt to unseat a conservative incumbent.

On Friday, Justice David Prosser had a lead of 7,500 votes out of 1.5 million ballots cast, an unusually close vote for a judicial race that he was expected to win easily. JoAnne Kloppenburg was considering a recount.

Tate said the race energized efforts to recall Republican senators. Two liberal political action groups — Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America — quickly announced that they would pour another $125,000 into recall ads in Green Bay, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

In addition to the six most endangered lawmakers, recall efforts are proceeding against five other senators — two Democrats and three Republicans. But those prospects get dimmer every day as the filing deadline looms. And campaigns targeting two other GOP senators and three Democrats are long shots at best.

Both sides have been vague on the progress of their recall efforts, but many of the signature-gathering efforts are at the halfway point. The earliest recall would not happen until June. Elections officials are already seeking to push back that deadline.

A recall election is a two-step process. Organizers must first gather enough signatures to trigger the election. The number varies depending on the turnout in the last regular election. Then voters decide whether to keep the incumbent or pick someone new.

Kapanke is almost certain to face recall after organizers filed more than 22,000 signatures, considerably more than the 15,588 required. He planned to discuss the petition with Republican leaders to decide whether to challenge the signatures.

Kapanke stands by his vote on collective bargaining, but says he cannot tell where public opinion stands in his district.

“It’s evened out some, but whether it’s 50-50 or 55-45, I’m very unsure.” Kapanke said. “I will say that more and more people have come up to me and said ‘Way to go’ or ‘We appreciate your vote,’ so I’ve had more support. But obviously there’s strong feelings on the other side as well.”

Republican Sens. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac and Alberta Darling of River Hills also appear to be at risk. Hopper won his 2008 election by only 184 votes.

Recall organizers turned in the signatures against Hopper on Thursday. His campaign manager said he planned to challenge them, alleging that many of the names were from outside the district and that some people who signed the petition were wrongly told that Hooper was among the 14 Democrats who left the state.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Jim Holperin of Conover looks the most vulnerable. Holperin survived a previous recall election in 1990, when he was in the state Assembly.

Collective bargaining “is a divisive issue, and it did not come up in my campaign in 2008 and did not come up in any previous campaign,” said Holperin, one of 14 Democrats who fled the state for three weeks to delay a vote on Walker’s bill. “If that turns out to be the issue … then I don’t know what could happen.”

Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party, acknowledged that Holperin is in a competitive district, but said he expects him to survive any recall.

“I think that it’s possible to get the signatures, but they don’t have the groundswell of support, and they don’t have momentum on their side,” Tate said.

Opponents are also trying to remove Sen. Robert Wirch of Pleasant Prairie and Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay.

Recall committees targeting the separate group of five senators claim they are on track to get the necessary signatures. Democrats pursuing the three Republicans have spent $160,000, far more than recall organizers in the GOP.

However, those senators won their previous elections handily or with no opposition at all, so removing them could be especially difficult.

For instance, Republican Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay has been in the Senate since 1987. He was unopposed in 2008 and won his 2004 election with nearly 90 percent of the vote. Democrats have poured more than $57,000 into recalling Cowles.

“Now people are discovering, ‘Gosh, it’s so difficult to get those signatures,'” Kraft said. “They have a limited window, so they’re going to have to scramble to get these.”

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