By Kevin Binversie
Wisconsin is eagerly watching the recall election of six Republican state senators. Political observers from all over the country can agree the elections today and next week can give a hint as to where the political landscape is for both parties on a national level. Since Republican Governor Scott Walker, with the help of Wisconsin Republicans in the state legislature passed a budget with collective bargaining reforms earlier this year, many believe the races today will be a referendum on the budget and the reforms. The undeniable truth about five of these recalls is they will be decided by turnout of the Republican voter.
Five of the six state senators are in Republican districts. The only one that isn’t — the 32nd State Senate District, held by La Crosse Republican Dan Kapanke — is likely already a Democratic win.
Of the remaining five, the safest are Robert Cowles in the 2nd (De Pere, Shawano, Kaukauna) and Shelia Harsdorf in the 10th (River Falls, Hudson, St. Croix Falls). They are said to be running great campaigns and should win comfortably if the conventional wisdom holds for tonight.
The next two are the ones likely to be the most watched. Those are Alberta Darling the 8th (Germantown, Mequon-Thiensville, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay) and Luther Olsen in the 14th (Red Granite, Ripon, Portage, and Baraboo). These are Republican districts.
In fact, most Wisconsin political watchers will tell you the 8th is 1/3 Liberal, 2/3 Conservative. If Darling’s opponent Sandy Pasch is victorious tonight, it will be because of massive turnout in the liberal suburbs of Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, and Glendale along Milwaukee’s North Shore. Darling will find her votes in Germantown, Menominee Falls, Mequon, and Thiensville.
The 14th is home to Ripon, “the Birthplace of the Republican Party.” The biggest question in Ripon will be how capable a campaigner Luther Olsen became during this recall. Mr. Olsen never faced a Democratic opponent since first entering state politics in 1994, and he didn’t face a Democratic opponent when he was elected to the State Senate in 2004 or for his re-election in 2008. Much of the concern on the right is Olsen could be resting on the laurels of his past wins and is lazy on the campaign trail. We’ll know tonight if that was true or not.
The final race to watch is Randy Hopper in the 18th (Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Waupun). Sen. Hopper was thought to be long left as politically unviable after personal details revolving around a messy divorce and a young mistress surfaced. Word on the campaign trail and recent polling from of all places, the Daily Kos, show Hopper is making a comeback. If he somehow squeaks it out, it could be the biggest political comeback story in Wisconsin history.
This kind of comeback would also indicate that Jessica King, Hopper’s Democratic opponent both in his recall and in 2008, is a horrible campaign closer. Hopper won their first match-up by just 168 votes.
How does this end tonight? I’m in the camp where I see Democrats taking only two of the recall elections—the seats currently held by Dan Kapanke in La Crosse and Randy Hopper in Fond du Lac.
Could Republicans lose only one seat? It’s possible. Could Republicans lose three or four seats, flipping the State Senate? It’s possible. It will come down to Republican levels of turnout.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. He currently writes for the Wisconsin Reporter