After falling short of recapturing the state Senate majority last week, Democrats came up big winners in Tuesday night’s final Wisconsin recall election, retaining two seats in hotly contested districts that drew record voter turnout and unprecedented spending.
The election, the last of three recall votes in two months, added a bit of third-act drama to a state that remains politically divided after a collective bargaining law — supported by the state’s new Republican governor and passed earlier this year in the GOP-dominated legislature — drew the ire of angry labor supporters and split political ranks even further.
In a total of nine recall races — one last month, six last week, and two on Tuesday — Republicans won four and Democrats five. But the gains were not enough for Democrats to regain Senate control, seen as key to stopping what some supporters have dubbed the governor’s runaway agenda.
Since 1913, there have been on 13 successful recall elections in Wisconsin, where today’s political divide and rancor might have surprised political predecessors nearly a century ago. More than $30 million was spent on the latest recall races with an estimated $20 million of that money coming from interests outside the state.
The big spending fury came in response to Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP-led legislature passing a collective bargaining bill limiting benefits to union workers in an effort to staunch a state deficit. Wisconsin joins other heavily unionized Midwest states, including Ohio, that have attempted legislatively to diminish the union benefit burden on shrinking state coffers.
Thousands of pro-labor protestors have marched on statehouses over the issue, including in Wisconsin, where they swarmed the state Capitol, casting the collective bargaining legislation as an affront to working-class people around the nation.
Turnout was heavy in the Wisconsin recall races, even as many political observers predicted voter fatigue.
But Tuesday night’s Democrat wins may stoke the fires of many who have threatened a recall vote of Gov. Walker.
A poll released Tuesday, before the night’s Democratic wins, by the North Carolina firm Public Policy Polling found that support for a recall effort against the governor was waning, even as unions and other labor supporters vowed revenge last week amid GOP gains.
While Gov. Walker’s popularity is not high, half of the state’s voters now say they oppose his recall, while another 47 percent favor it. The latest data is a swap of a poll from last May, which found 50 percent of voters seeking his ouster and 47 percent opposing such a move.
“I think there’s a certain segment of voters in Wisconsin — somewhere around 10 percent of the population — that is generally opposed to the concept of recalls regardless of how they feel about how things are going in the state,” said pollster Tom Jensen in releasing that latest Wisconsin survey.
“We’ve seen that in the state Senate recalls so far — the polls have universally moved in the closing days in favor of the incumbents, both Democratic and Republican. When folks get off the fence they’re tending to vote anti-recall,” Mr. Jensen said.
Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the GOP’s slim margin in the Senate — 17 to 16 — may make it tougher for them in certain key votes in future sessions.
“I suspect that we will see some decline in the recall sentiment, especially having gone through this and the Democrats falling short of taking back the Senate the way they wanted to do,” Mr. Franklin said.
“I think the uncertainty comes from some of the most committed Democratic grass roots organizations who may push for a recall on the basis of the strength of the Democratic base rather on strength of opinions statewide. I think the biggest wisdom on this is a recall cannot begin collecting signatures until early November at very earliest and they probably would not start collecting until sometime in the new year. I think that is a very long time for tempers to cool or for some political developments to go the other way,” he said.
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