GOP Hoping to Hang On in Wisconsin Recalls

by Stuart Rothenberg August 5, 2011 · 11:09 AM EDT

Though Yogi Berra is most often associated with the phrase “it ain’t over till it’s over,” it is Republicans in Wisconsin who are now uttering the phrase, hoping that their party can limit its losses to only a seat or two in next week’s state Senate recall elections.

Following the GOP-controlled Legislature’s passage of a bill limiting public employee’s collective bargaining rights, Democrats are targeting six Senate Republicans for recall. If they win even half, Democrats will turn a 19-14 seat disadvantage in the chamber into a 17-16 seat majority. Republicans also control the state Assembly.

The recall contests have turned into a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker (R), who isn’t subject to recall until he has served at least a year in office. Insiders acknowledge that voters on both sides of the aisle show a high level of interest in the elections, and partisan lines have been sharply drawn in the contests.

Independent voters appear to hold the key in many races, but both Republican and Democratic strategists agree that turnout is both uncertain and a crucial factor in many of the contests.

Of the six Republican state Senators facing recalls, Dan Kapanke looks to have the most uphill road to victory in his race against state Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D). A seven-year-veteran of the state Senate, Kapanke lost a tight (50 percent to 47 percent) race for Congress last year to Rep. Ron Kind (D), for whom Shilling once worked as a Congressional aide.

But the 63-year-old Republican represents very Democratic turf — and a district that went 62 percent for President Barack Obama in 2008. Given that, all Democratic operatives need to do to defeat Kapanke is to turn out Democratic voters who want to send a message of disapproval to Walker.

If they oust Kapanke, Democrats would need to win two of the next three closest contests, which feature Republican state Sens. Randy Hopper, Luther Olsen and Alberta Darling.

If the controversial Walker isn’t enough of a problem for Hopper, the legislator’s messy public life is an obvious liability. Hopper apparently has been living outside his district with his mistress, and his wife said she would sign his recall petition.

Hopper barely won election in 2008 by 163 votes out of more than 83,000 votes cast, a margin of less than two-tenths of a point. His opponent in the recall is Oshkosh Deputy Mayor Jessica King, the same woman he narrowly defeated in 2008.

Given Hopper’s personal problems and the closeness of his last race, the Republican Senator is in a very difficult position.

If both Kapanke and Hooper lose, control of the Senate would rest on Democratic challenges to GOP incumbents Olsen and Darling.

Olsen is a veteran of the Wisconsin Legislature. First elected to the state Assembly in 1994, he was elected to the Senate in 2004 and again in 2008. He did not face opposition in either of his Senate bids. He faces state Rep. Fred Clark (D) in the recall election.

Darling, 67, has served in the Wisconsin Senate since 1992. While she won re-election narrowly in 2008 by only 1,007 votes out of more than 99,000 cast, Darling initially wasn’t expected to have much difficulty winning the recall. But Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch is proving to be a more formidable opponent than expected.

Polling shows both Clark and Darling to be in nail-biters, with some Republicans prepared for the worst and grumbling that national Democratic groups are more energized and that Wisconsin Republicans made a mistake by not seeking more help nationally.

Two other Republican Senators facing recalls, Robert Cowles and Sheila Harsdorf, seem to be running much better than their GOP colleagues. Harsdorf’s opponent is Shelly Moore, a Wisconsin Education Association Council activist, while Cowles faces former Brown County executive Nancy Nusbaum, who lost a 2006 Democratic Congressional primary to Steve Kagen.

Democratic state Sen. Jim Holperin faces a recall election the following week, and he was elected in 2008 with only

51 percent of the vote. But GOP opponent Kim Simac is a clear underdog against Holperin.

The bottom line on all this appears to favor the Democrats. Control of the Wisconsin Senate rests on just a few races, with Republicans needing to squeeze out victories by Olsen and Darling and to avoid other upsets. That’s possible but probably unlikely, given Democratic enthusiasm in the state.

“The average Republican voters in Wisconsin viewed the passage of the Walker proposals in March as the end of a tough battle, while Democrats viewed it as the beginning,” said Chris Jankowski of the Republican State Leadership Council, which seeks to elect Republicans to down-ballot statewide and state legislative offices.

Democratic victories in Wisconsin next week and the party’s control of the state Senate would be a shot in the arm nationally for a party that is widely viewed to have “lost” in Washington, D.C.’s recent debt ceiling battle.

Democratic success in Wisconsin would also boost morale in a number of other states where unpopular GOP governors have mobilized Democratic opposition.

But some Democratic strategists are already trying to temper expectations about the possibility of Wisconsin-style victories elsewhere.

“This was relatively easy to do in Wisconsin because of the state law and because there were white-hot issues of the moment that spurred Democrats on,” one Democratic political veteran told me. “Repeating this in other states simply won’t be as easy.”

The same Democrat admitted that failing to win back the state Senate in Wisconsin “would be deflating elsewhere.”

There is another reason for Democrats to be cautious about recall victories. Republicans have already redrawn the state’s legislative districts for 2012, and the new lines will give the GOP every opportunity to regain control of the state Senate next year, even if it loses its majority in next week’s recalls.

Still, a win is a win, and the Wisconsin recall elections will be a big win for one of the parties.