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Democrats Fall Short in Wisconsin Recall Effort

Democrats Fall Short in Wisconsin Recall Effort

By Sean Trende - August 10, 2011

The Democratic game plan in Wisconsin was a simple one. Step 1: Harness the energy from the protests that erupted in the wake of the Republican legislature’s attempt to limit the collective bargaining power of labor unions, and defeat Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Step 2: Ride the momentum from that victory into a set of summer recall elections, taking back control of the state Senate. Step 3: Successfully recall Gov. Scott Walker sometime in early 2012. This would send a plain message to GOP governors and legislators across the Rust Belt: Don’t mess with labor unions.

Democrats stumbled with Step 1, when Prosser narrowly won re-election to his seat. Last night, they failed at Step 2, winning only two Senate races (they needed three to claim control of the chamber). This casts serious doubt on whether success in Step 3 is feasible.

The races went pretty much as the early handicapping suggested they should. Democrats won two “first-tier” pickup opportunities (the higher the tier, the greater the Democrats' chances), defeating Sens. Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper. But Democrats won these seats largely due to unique circumstances. In the 32nd district, nestled in the southwestern corner of the state, Kapanke lost to state Rep. Jennifer Shilling. This is unsurprising. Kapanke’s district is Democratic, giving Justice Prosser only 42 percent of the vote, and John McCain 38 percent in 2008. With an engaged Democratic electorate and a quality opponent, it was only a matter of time before Kapanke lost.

The 18th district is more heavily Republican -- McCain scored 47 percent of the vote there, and Prosser won 53 percent. But the incumbent’s estranged wife claimed that he lived outside of the district with his mistress (and she actually joined the recall effort -- along with the family housekeeper). In addition, Hopper faced the same opponent who had come less than a half point from unseating him in 2008, before the scandal broke. One has to chalk his loss up to personal issues rather than to any broad-based support for the Democratic Party’s agenda. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that Hopper lost by only 1,200 votes or so.

In the “second-tier” opportunities, Democrats lost badly in Sheila Harsdorf’s swing district, in part because they failed to recruit a top-tier candidate. They did make it close in Luther Olsen’s district, which Bush, Prosser and Walker had all carried handily, although Olsen hadn’t faced an opponent in years. Finally, in the “third-tier” voting areas, Republicans won a significant victory in Robert Cowles’ district. For much of the night, it looked like Alberta Darling’s suburban Milwaukee district would hand Democrats the win they needed to take back the Senate, but the late precincts broke heavily for Darling, who won by an eight-point margin.

Attention now shifts to two Democrats who are facing recalls. Jim Holperin’s Green Bay district leans Republican -- Prosser received about 55 percent of the vote there -- but Holperin has the benefit of a problematic opponent. Robert Wirch has a better opponent, but he resides in a more Democratic district. The GOP is probably the underdog in both of these contests.

There are four takeaways here. First, it will be more difficult for Republicans to advance their agenda further in Wisconsin. This may not matter, since most of that agenda has already been enacted, but the slender one-vote majority leaves them no room for error. Remember, one Republican voted against Walker’s budget earlier this year; if that vote were held today, the GOP probably would have lost.

Second, the Democrats’ chances of taking back the state Senate in the near future are limited. Darling’s district becomes about nine points more Republican after redistricting, and the “odd-numbered” seats, which will be eligible for recall next year, were shored up as well.

Third, in light of this second defeat for Wisconsin Democrats, a successful recall of Walker next year seems unlikely. The one argument Democrats can make is that these recalls were largely fought in Republican-leaning districts, while Walker’s recall will be fought in a state that is generally a swing state. All they have to do is reduce his 2010 showing by three points or so. And, of course, the national mood can change quickly, as we learned in 2010. Regardless, unless things change, it will be much harder to convince a top-tier challenger to run, or to attract money for the race.

Fourth, and most importantly, it shows the limits of labor’s political clout. Twenty years ago it probably could have delivered these races, and 40 years ago the law that started this whole mess would have been almost unthinkable. Rather than sending a message of labor’s strength to GOP governors in the rust belt, this campaign may have made plain its limits. 

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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