What Prosser's Victory Means for the Recall Elections

What Prosser's Victory Means for the Recall Elections

By Sean Trende - April 19, 2011

If it holds up, the 7,316-vote victory claimed Monday night by Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge David Prosser over Democratic challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg would be a blow to liberals in the state. Prosser is a longtime Republican state legislator, and his victory would give conservatives a working 4-3 majority on the state's high court.

Regardless of who eventually comes out ahead in the seemingly inevitable recount, however, Wisconsin clearly remains a bright "purple" state. This reality has significant implications for the upcoming recall elections, which we can now examine in more detail.

Wisconsin law allows for the recall of elected officials who have been in office more than a year. That means that the 16 state senators last elected in 2008 are vulnerable to recall efforts. Eight of them are Republicans who voted for Gov. Scott Walker's package sharply curtailing collective bargaining for state employees. Eight others are Democrats who fled the state while the legislature was in session in attempts to derail the governor's efforts. Supporters of recall efforts have another month or so to gather approximately 15,000 signatures, depending on the district. If they succeed, an open primary is called; if no one receives 50 percent of the vote in the primary, a runoff election is held.

Of the 16 targeted lawmakers, two Republicans occupy seats that are heavily Republican, while four Democrats occupy safely Democratic seats. These senators are not considered vulnerable even if forced to sit for a recall election.

The rest may well be in play. While we don't have enough information to assign traditional "Tossup/Lean/Likely" ratings to these races, we can still group these senators into three tiers of opportunities for takeover. Taken together, they suggest that Democratic gains are somewhat more likely than not, and that a Democratic takeover of the chamber, while a long shot, remains a possibility.

These ratings are based upon a number of considerations. The polling is probably not reliable, as the most recent surveys are about a month old, and the situation is fluid. Instead, let's look to four recent election results: The 2004 and 2008 presidential race, the 2010 governor's race, and the 2011 Supreme Court runoff. I also looked at the incumbent state senators' 2004 and 2008 results.

Overall, the prospects for a Democratic takeover of the state Senate this year appear slim, and are largely tied to the outcome in a district where the incumbent's personal problems will likely play a larger role in the outcome than any backlash against the Walker administration. Indeed, Democrats could conceivably lose a seat or two, as they have some vulnerable members.

Democratic Opportunities

First Tier

District 18, Sen. Randy Hopper (R) (Bush 57%, McCain 47%, Walker 57%, Prosser 53%, Hopper 2008 = 50.1%). The fundamentals of Hopper's district, based around Fond du Lac and Oshkosh, would normally point to at best a "somewhat vulnerable" rating. But Hopper's estranged wife recently claimed that he lives outside of the district with his girlfriend and has reportedly joined the recall drive. Hopper - who filed for divorce last August - denies the allegations, but this is obviously an inauspicious time for this particular batch of family laundry to be hanging out on the clothesline. Hopper will likely face a rematch with his 2008 opponent, who nearly unseated him that year.

District 32, Sen. Dan Kapanke (R) (Bush 46%, McCain 38%, Walker 50%, Prosser 42%, Kapanke 2008 = 51.4%). Last November, Kapanke came a few points from unseating seven-term congressional incumbent Ron Kind. Now Kapanke is in the fight of his political life. His district is centered on LaCrosse County, in the southwest portion of the state. LaCrosse showed one of the sharpest swings away from Scott Walker of any county in the state - and Walker barely carried this district in 2010 to begin with.

Recall proponents have filed the requisite number of signatures to trigger an election, and he has already drawn a high-profile challenger for the recall election. He won in 2008 while John McCain was getting only 38 percent of the vote, so it would be a mistake to write him off completely, but he is clearly in trouble.

Second Tier

District 10, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R) (Bush 51%, McCain 48%, Walker 58%, Prosser 49%, Harsdorf 2008 = 56.4%,). Harsdorf's district is located in the far northwest bulge of the state. It is reasonably Republican, but swung heavily against Prosser, who barely ran ahead of McCain in the district. Supporters of the recall claim that they are approaching the number of signatures that they need to force a recall election. Still, she won handily in the bad Republican year of 2008, suggesting that she may have a reservoir of goodwill to draw upon, and the district is generally a bit more Republican than the rest of the state. She will be a formidable opponent.

District 14, Sen. Luther Olsen (R) (Bush 56%, McCain 47%, Walker 57%, Prosser 55%, Olsen 2008 = unopposed). While Olsen's district is located squarely in the middle of the state, it has a distinctly rightward tilt. Prosser and Walker both won handily here, and there hasn't been a decrease in Republican performance recently. Olsen hasn't had an opponent in years and could be rusty, but he seems to be in substantially better shape than Kapanke or Hopper.

Third Tier

District 2, Sen. Robert Cowles (R) (Bush 47%, McCain 46%, Walker 57%, Prosser 58%, Cowles 2008 = unopposed). This district comprises the Green Bay suburbs and a few rural counties in the northeast. Prosser and Walker did particularly well here. Cowles' name isn't mentioned as frequently as a potential recall victim, although if the mood shifts or if he is caught napping, the district has enough of a Democratic base to trip him up.

District 8, Sen. Alberta Darling (R) (Bush 53%, McCain 47%, Walker 54%, Prosser ~66%, Darling 2008 = 50.5%). Democrats were especially excited about the odds of ousting Darling when the recall campaign began, largely on the basis of her near-loss in 2008. Her 2008 opponent is considering entering the race if a recall effort is successful, as is state representative Sandy Pasch. But this district is based in the Milwaukee suburbs, where voters overwhelmingly supported Prosser's re-election effort. A recall campaign based upon the collective bargaining law doesn't seem like it would have much salience here.

Republican Opportunities

First Tier

District 12, Sen. Jim Holperin (D) (Bush 53%, McCain 46%, Walker 57%, Prosser 55%, Holperin 2008 = 51%). This district is the inverse of the 32nd. Jim Holperin narrowly won in the big Democratic year of 2008, and occupies a northeastern district that gave Prosser virtually identical numbers to Scott Walker. Recall supporters have not obtained enough signatures to force him into a recall election, but they claim to be close. Assuming that they do so -- and can find a quality opponent -- Holperin will have his hands full.

District 30, Sen. David Hansen (D) (Bush 52%, McCain 42%, Walker 54%, Prosser 53%, Hansen 2004 =54.6%). Hansen's district is based in Green Bay (the city), and extends up the northern Green Bay (the body of water) shoreline to the Michigan border. Prosser carried the district. Hansen won handily in 2008, but his 2004 margin was narrower. Recall proponents claim that they have the required number of signatures to trigger an election; if they do, they will need to find a challenger who can put together a credible campaign. Hansen is vulnerable, but probably has the edge.

Second Tier

District 22, Sen. Robert Wirch (D) (Bush 48%, McCain 41%, Walker 53%, Prosser 49%, Wirch 2004 =52.4%). This district, based in Kenosha in the far southeast corner of the state, is about as close to the center of the state as any district you will find. The four major statewide races have all ended up within a few points of the statewide averages. Recall proponents say that they have enough signatures to force a recall election. In the current environment, Wirch, who won by only four points in 2004, could have a tough race if proponents can find an attractive challenger.
Third Tier

District 24, Sen. Julie Lassa (D) (Bush 47%, McCain 39%, Walker 51%, Prosser 45%, Lassa 2004 = 68%). Republicans still talk about ousting Lassa, who lost to Republican Sean Duffy in a spirited campaign to claim the seat of retiring Representative David Obey. But her central Wisconsin district is solidly Democratic, and two of the district's three constituent Assembly districts are held by Democrats (the third flipped to the GOP by 400 votes in 2010). Lassa should be safe, barring the bottom falling out for the Democrats.


The ultimate outcome of these races will come down to whether the parties can find challengers capable of putting together a competitive campaign in six weeks, and which side turns out its voters. The basic playing field suggests that Democrats should be able to advance the ball a seat or two, but will likely come up short in their bid to seize control of the chamber, at least this year via a recall strategy. However, the Republicans who won in the 2010 wave will be eligible for recall next year, which may give Democrats the opportunity to complete their push.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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