Wisconsin Senate Recalls to Determine Balance of Power in Legislature

Lest we forget, Gov. Scott Walker is not the only public figure in Wisconsin potentially headed to the political gallows.


MADISON — Lest we forget, Gov. Scott Walker is not the only public figure in Wisconsin potentially headed to the political gallows.

Joining the Republican governor in Tuesday's recall election are three incumbent state senators — all Republicans — who are facing the voters after a challenge from Democratic opponents. 

Meanwhile, a fourth state Senate district seat will be filled in a special election. The seat is vacant but was held by a Republican who resigned for personal reasons after the recall petitions came out.

Walker is the third governor in U.S. history to face recall, so his race against Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett understandably gets most of the media attention.

That would have been the case even if Walker had not become a polarizing national figure over the past 16 months, since passing collective bargaining reforms.

Unions hope to quash the reforms contained in Act 10 by defeating him Tuesday, while conservatives hope to use the legislation as model for reform in other states.

Democrats need to capture one of the four races Tuesday to take the majority in the Senate, at least until the general election in November.

Of the four, the most interesting to watch—and the most expensive—is the battle between state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and John Lehman, D-Racine, who held that seat until 2010.

More than $1.1 million, from outside sources alone, has been spent on that campaign, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit that tracks spending on elections in the state,

"When you combine that with the money being spent by the campaigns directly, it will probably top $2 million," said Mike McCabe, the group's executive director.

Polling suggests Lehman is the Democrats' best chance to win back control of the state Senate, said John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

In a toss-up district, the top of the ticket could determine the outcome, he said.

"I would be inclined to say that since Walker is up in the polls, probably Van Wanggaard would be considered the favorite," McAdams said. "But everything is a referendum on Walker."

The other races are:

  • In the 13th District, incumbent state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Dodge, faces Democratic challenger Lori Compas.
  • In the 23rd District, incumbent state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa, faces Democratic challenger Kristin Dexter.
  • In the 29th District, an vacant seat will be contested by Republican Jerry Petrowski and Democrat Donna Seidel.

Wanggaard holding his seat is critical for the Republicans, and here's why.

The GOP held a 19-14 edge in the Senate after the 2010 elections, but Democrats cut that margin to 17-16 by winning a pair of recall races in August.

Then, after four more state senators were recalled, state Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Marathon, resigned abruptly, citing family health issues. So, the chamber is split 16-16, with one vacancy.

Though Democrats need to win only one of the four races Tuesday to take control of the Senate, Republicans will continue to hold a commanding, 60-39, edge in the Assembly. 

Labor unions have bankrolled the recall effort against Walker and poured money into Barrett's campaign. The importance of the Senate race isn't lost on them.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a labor union based Washington, D.C., has thrown $1,000 to each of the Democratic candidates in the four races. Wisconsin-based labor unions poured more than $10,000 into the four races during the last reporting cycle, April 22 to May 21, according to the most-recent cycle of reports to the Government Accountability Board, the state's election watchdog.

In races in which more than 85 percent of all contributions were less than $100, that holds considerable weight. 

A trickle-down effect, a result of the money spent on the top of the ticket, emerges as people backing Walker or Barrett are likely to vote for the same party in the Senate races.

If the effort to recall Walker fails, a victory in any of the four races would be a moral win for Democrats, but the gubernatorial race remains most important, said McAdams.

"Even if they take back the majority, the Democrats would be far from able to roll back all Walker's reforms," he said. "And if Van Wanggaard survives, it only adds to the support for Walker in the Legislature."

The races have seen a dearth of polling. The most recent poll — by liberal leaning Public Policy Polling in mid-April — showed the Republican candidates leading in every race. Only the Wanggaard-Lehman race was within the margin of error, with Wanggaard leading by 2 points.

This article originally appeared at WisconsinReporer.com