Every day a flurry of 8.5'' by 11'' glossy mailers arrive in mailboxes across the 10th senate district in northwestern Wisconsin. They reliably depict Sheila Harsdorf, one of six Republican state senators facing a recall election on Tuesday, as a pawn of Governor Scott Walker and greedy corporations. Some days she's (falsely) accused of wanting to "eliminate Medicare." Other days she's attacked for cutting money from public education while sending millions to private schools in Milwaukee (by supporting vouchers that save the state money). But for all of the attack ads, there's one charge you'll never hear made against Harsdorf--that she stripped workers of their "rights" by voting for Walker's collective bargaining bill earlier this year.
"The suggestion that the reason we're sitting here today is based entirely on one piece of legislation entirely misses the point," said Harsdorf's Democratic opponent Shelly Moore during a radio debate Thursday night. But, the debate moderator asked, weren't these recall elections triggered by the collective bargaining reform? "I disagree with you entirely. I know it didn't trigger my desire to run," said Moore.
While protesting in Madison earlier this year, Moore was singing a different tune. "This is a war," she told the crowd of protesters. "We breathe union." Moore, a high school teacher and union activist, understandably wants to distance herself from her pungent remarks (now featured prominently in a Club for Growth attack ad). According to reports, Moore is not unusual. Democratic candidates throughout the state are downplaying the collective bargaining law, which is working quite well.
Moore has no horror stories to share. "As I've traveled around the senate district, I know that superintendents and school boards still intend to create an atmosphere of respect for our employees," she said. "I was more than happy to make my contribution" to help balance the state's budget by paying more fore her pension and health insurance, she explained. But she was dismayed that "large multi-national corporations and our manufacturers" did not share in the sacrifice.
While the reform is working, its fate--or at least the fate of the Republicans who passed it--may still be in jeopardy. Democrats need to net three seats to take control of the senate, and Democratic polling shows that they may be on track to do just that. "I don't know that I would say that we are going to sweep all six races, but our polling tells that we have leads in three of these races and we are dead tied in three," Wisconsin Democratic party chairman Mike Tate said this week.
State senator Dan Kapanke is down by double digits in the polls, and his heavily Democratic district is viewed by both sides as a goner. The next most likely Democratic pickup is the seat held by Randy Hopper, who won in 2008 by just 163 votes and is now in hot water because he left his wife for a 25-year-old in Madison. Hopper is down by just single digits, so there's a chance he could pull of an upset.
If Democrats take those two seats, they'll need to win just one more of the four remaining races to take back the senate. According to Democratic polling, Republican Luther Olsen is trailing Democratic state assemblyman Fred Clark by single digits. "Luther Olsen is the linchpin," says one plugged-in Republican, who tells me Republican polling has Olsen leading the Democrat by single digits.
Conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes (Milwaukee's Rush Limbaugh) says he's "cautiously optimistic" that Republicans will hold Olsen's seat and their majority in the senate. He points out that Olsen's district leans strongly Republican. (It gave 57% of the vote to Walker in 2010 and 55% of the vote to conservative supreme court justice David Prosser in 2011). "Our tribe turned out in April for David Prosser when all smart people thought that he'd lost," says Sykes. "Even though the other side is jazzed up, so are we."
The next closest race is Alberta Darling's district north of Milwaukee. Democratic polls show her ahead by just a couple points. She won with 50.5% of the vote in 2008, but Walker and Prosser had strong performances there. Democratic polls show Republicans Sheila Harsdorf and Robert Cowles faring slightly better than Darling, and Republicans say they're feeling confident about both races. There's also a chance that Republicans could pick up a Democratic seat on August 16, when Democratic incumbent Jim Holperin faces Jane Simac, a Republican who is a little rough around the edges but within striking distance.
What does it all mean if Democrats take back the senate? Looking at the unprecedented amount of money being spent, you'd think they'd gain a lot. (Total spending on the races may top $40 million when it's all said and done.) But, with a Republican assembly and governor, they won't succeed in repealing any legislation that Walker has signed. Recently passed Republican laws--including tort, budget, tax, and education reform, as well as pro-gun and pro-life measures--won't go anywhere if the Democrats take over the senate.
In terms of policy, then, the outcome of the supreme court election on April 5 was much more important than Tuesday's senate recall elections. Had conservative David Prosser not narrowly won by 7,000 votes, the court would have swung to a 4-3 liberal majority. The court may have ended up invalidating the collective bargaining law as well as other parts of the GOP agenda.
But a victory on Tuesday would still be significant for Democrats and the unions. It would serve as a warning shot to Republicans in other states contemplating the reforms Walker enacted. And it could give the Democrats momentum heading into a 2012 recall election against Walker himself. Democrats are expected to try to submit their recall petitions at such a time so that Walker's election coincides with the 2012 presidential election. The likely challenger? Former U.S. senator Russ Feingold. A formidable opponent, to be sure, Feingold lost in the 2010 GOP wave by just five points. He's clearly still interested in politics, and nothing would do more to set him up for a presidential run in 2016 than being the man who beat Scott Walker. As Feingold told a crowd of protesters in Madison earlier this year: "The game's not over until we win."