- Associated Press - Sunday, August 7, 2011

Five months after an epic showdown over taxes, spending and union rights that paralyzed the capital and transfixed the country, Wisconsin voters could tip the state’s political balance of power as six Republican lawmakers battle to keep their jobs in recall votes Tuesday.

“[A shift in power] is a very real possibility. It won’t be easy, but it’s a real possibility,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The recall battles are the direct result of the standoff between new GOP governor Scott Walker and the state’s potent public-sector unions over a controversial bill that stripped most state workers of their collective bargaining rights in an effort to rein in spending. The recall showdown has brought in unprecedented outside cash and logistical expertise to both parties.

Mr. Walker signed the bill into law on March 11 and on June 14 the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled a temporary restraining order on the bill. Republicans maintain the bill will create jobs and help fix Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion projected deficit, but Democrats charge that the new governor’s real motive was to bust the unions.

Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature, but the GOP state Senate majority is just 19-14. If Democrats can pick up a net three seats, they will claim a majority and a potential veto on Mr. Walker’s agenda.

The senators up for recall Tuesday include Robert Cowles (District 2), Alberta Darling (8), Sheila Harsdorf (10), Randy Hopper (18), Dan Kapanke (32), and Luther Olsen (14). All six districts are politically polarized areas - all six voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, but all six also were won by Mr. Walker two years later.

The incumbents and Mr. Walker have accused outside groups of sending in protesters and exerting financial influence, but Jennie Cauwels, a volunteer for the recall effort against Ms. Harsdorf, said it was “mainly grass-roots” efforts in the state that have fueled the campaign.

Sheila keeps saying it’s outside interests, but it’s elderly women with Parkinson’s disease and it’s people like me,” Ms. Cauwels said.

Democrats say their internal polling gives them a strong chance of at least three victories, but turnout will be crucial and there’s little precedent for gauging the parties’ preparation for a mid-August recall drive.

The amount of money spent to date, however, has been astounding by Badger State standards. The labor-backed PAC We Are Wisconsin raised a reported total of $9.7 million for the recalls. Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce do not have to register spending due to their focusing on issue ads, but spending estimates put them at an equal if not higher number.

Experts estimate that outside groups, combined with spending by candidates, will reach a record-shattering $30 million. A federal appeals court blocked a limit the state had tried to impose on contributions from so-called “super-PACs” last week, opening the door for an even higher cash flow.

“The political arm of [President Obama], Organizing for America, is active and on the ground in my district. I’m not sure the residents want that type of outside influence determining the course of our state,” Mr. Kapanke said.

Many on both sides are already calling Tuesday’s vote the opening shot of the 2012 campaign, with many of the same issues - taxes, wages, the size and scope of the states - directly in play.

Although his legacy may be on the line, Mr. Walker has sounded almost fatalistic about Tuesday’s votes, saying the results are “out of our hands” but expressing confidence that voters will back him when they see the dire predictions of his opponents don’t come to pass.

“I believe if given the facts theyre going to make good decisions,” he told the website wispolitics.com after a ceremony opening the State Fair in Milwaukee. “Sometimes theyre going to be decisions that side with me, sometimes theyre going to be with others, but Im going to respect their decision.”

Republicans aren’t the only ones whose jobs are in jeopardy - recall votes for incumbent Democratic state Sens. Jim Holperin (District 12) and Robert Wirch (22) are set for Aug. 16. Dan Hunt of Pleasant Prairie, who started the recall effort against Mr. Wirch, said he is feeling optimistic.

“What I’m seeing and feeling here on the ground is very, very positive. More and more people on our side are truly being energized, so I think we could win this thing easily,” Mr. Hunt said. “And this could go down in Political Science 101 as an incredible David-and-Goliath story in terms of spending, when you include third parties.”

The first recall election, which took place on July 19, saw Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen coast to an easy victory against GOP challenger David VanderLeest, but polls suggest the GOP incumbents will have a much tougher time holding on to their jobs..

Mr. Cowles, Ms. Darling, and Ms. Harsdorf are ahead in a recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, but Mr. Olsen, Mr. Hopper, and Mr. Kapanke are behind.

Mr. Burden said that, in some ways, the recall elections were mostly “symbolic” given the changes already wrought under Mr. Walker.

“Republicans have done a wonderful job of getting their package of items through during the first six months - budget repair, voter ID, concealed-carry [gun laws], redistricting. That makes the recall less meaningful in terms of policy,” Mr. Burden said.

Mr. Kapanke said that even with seeing his job in jeopardy, he still would have voted for the budget repair bill.

“Polls show me down but I’ve been out there the past six to eight weeks and I feel momentum coming my way,” Mr. Kapanke said. “We’ve balanced the budget and we’re growing jobs here in Wisconsin. We have increased revenues and we’ve paid our bills.”

“Wisconsin is on the right track,” he added. “Now we need to stay on course.”

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