Politics

Wisconsin Recall Elections Draw Lots of Attention -- and Cash

The recalls of Gov. Scott Walker, his lieutenant and four state senators could top $100 million, but that's just a prelude to the fall when the parties will fight for control of the state House.
by | April 2012

As Wisconsin’s recall season gets under way, two things are abundantly clear. First, the elections will be enormously expensive. Second, they will do nothing to end the partisan brawling that has become endemic in the state.

Last year’s attempts to recall a half-dozen state senators over a law that curbed collective bargaining for public employees is being followed by recalls involving four more state senators, not to mention GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. Because of Walker’s notoriety -- or stature -- as the elected official who has most aggressively targeted public-sector unions, total costs for the special elections are expected to top $100 million.

That’s a lot of money for a state the size of Wisconsin. As was the case last year in the recall districts, voters will be completely saturated with robocalls, TV ads and mailers.

“I live in a state Senate district where there was a recall last summer,” says Mordecai Lee, a former state legislator who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It’s baffling how much money was wasted.”

Money is wasted, Lee argues, because most people in the state have already made up their minds. Where a normal election season may start out with as many as a third of voters undecided, in this case just “a lousy 4 to 5 percent of the people have no opinion about Scott Walker,” Lee says.

Still, Walker and his opponents will seek to mobilize as many voters as possible. And every interest group with a stake in the race -- unions and their allies but also many business groups -- will want to play a role to show its supporters that it had an influence over this symbolically potent battle.

Heading toward the vote (set for May 8, with a general election held June 5 if needed), Wisconsinites can expect an endless stream of attacks and counterattacks. But that may yet serve only as a prelude to the fall. Because even if Democrats manage to unseat Walker and pick up the solitary Senate seat they need for control of that chamber, Republicans will retain a large majority in the state House.

Given the GOP’s 20-seat edge, regaining full control of Wisconsin’s government is a tall climb, concedes Jim Smith, a Democratic consultant in Madison. But if they can take out Walker, Democrats will inevitably target the state House, in order to have any hope of real success in rolling back his policies.

Under this scenario both parties -- even after spending so much in the recalls -- will be making the case yet again to their national funding networks that the House is the ultimate battleground.

“Their campaigns will be national, too,” Smith says, referring to fundraising by House members this fall. “There will be money and the effort with national conservatives. I would imagine they’ll play that up to the hilt.”

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