Politics, money, unions and the Wisconsin recall elections

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   Aug. 14, 2011 at 5:00 AM   |   0 comments

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Democrats and public unions may not be dancing in the streets after picking up two of six Republican Senate seats in last week's recall election, but they may be smirking a little -- or not.

The recall elections for nine state senators -- six Republicans and three Democrats in what some observers said was more retaliatory than reasoned -- is unprecedented. A Democrat was the first to face -- and win -- a recall election last month and two more face recall votes Tuesday.

To put it in perspective: There have only been 13 successful recalls in the state since 1913.

Unions, their workers and their money backed Democratic candidates and some pundits wondered if the 4-2 score Tuesday may spell trouble for the efforts.

"The results are deflating for unions because they expended much financial and membership effort and did not achieve their goal," said Steven Schier, political commentator and professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "That, combined with their loss in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election [earlier this year] is a double setback."

But, unions did effectively organize their campaign and flooded the Senate districts under recall with media ads, Schier said, "So they probably improved their organization infrastructure for the 2010 election in Wisconsin."

In fact, last week's recalls could be a cautionary tale for other governors and lawmakers deciding whether to curtail collective bargaining rights or otherwise upsetting public unions. Democrats, even in losing, had a good showing in Republican districts.

Democrats also plan to try to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker once he's eligible -- the recall results so far haven't changed their minds -- and try to maintain momentum heading into the 2012 elections.

The intense get-out-the-vote effort from both sides drove the non-statewide, non-presidential voting numbers into orbit, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. In one contest last week, the total vote exceeded that of the race for governor last fall.

And the money flowed. At least five of the elections last week topped the 2000 $3 million spending record for money spent by all parties in a Senate race.

Unions played a major role for Democrats by plunking down huge sums on advertising and supplying manpower in all six Senate districts. But conservatives responded in kind and pumped out large amounts of money as well.

More than $35 million has been spent on the recall races, reports the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which follows the money. The spending on the nine races eclipses the $19.3 million total spent in last year's 115 legislative races, and approaches the $37.4 million spent in the gubernatorial race that Walker won.

"Welcome to the new normal," Schier said. "The 2012 campaign will be closely contested with pugnacious rhetoric and campaign tactics and intense jousting by the rival candidates."

"The hot battle in Wisconsin is a portent of the temperature of the upcoming 2012 campaign nationally," he said.

The spending spigots spewed because unions saw the recalls as the best way to stop Walker's agenda and send a message to other states considering changing their collective bargaining laws, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media reported.

"I think it's a huge victory for us," John Hogan, director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, told the Journal Sentinel. "Voters gave us a mandate last fall. … They backed us up again [Tuesday]. Voters told us loud and clear, 'Stay the course. Things are working.'"

Whoa, Democrats said -- we captured two seats from Republicans.

"We went on their turf and we won on Republican turf," said Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "We will not stop, we will not rest … until we recall Scott Walker."

In a recent editorial, The New York Times called the two Democratic wins "an impressive response to the governor's arrogant overreach."

More importantly, the editorial said, a warning was issued to Republican lawmakers across the United States who are working to break public employee unions.

"Tuesday's vote proved that the unions and the middle-class voters who support them remain a potent force," the editorial said.

Schier also said governors and legislatures would take note.

"I think other governors will be cautious because Walker and the state GOP have had to expend much time, money and effort to defend themselves regarding the governor's controversial agenda," he said. "Other governors will probably take more cautious and indirect courses … to avoid the costs he incurred."

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal gave the "W" to the Republicans, saying in an editorial, "Unions across the country threw everything they had to defeat Wisconsin state senators who voted for collective bargaining reforms for government workers … and on Tuesday the unions lost."

Although the Senate remained in GOP control, albeit by a slimmer 17-16 margin depending on Tuesday's recall outcomes, the summer of the recall may have reinvigorated the state's labor unions, a historian told Salon.

"Tuesday's recall elections were not statewide, but they do indicate that in some districts Republicans continue to be vulnerable, while in some areas there is a definite movement toward the center if not the left," Andrew E. Kersten, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said. "Although clearly the Democrats came up a bit short with their overall goal of taking the state Senate back, these were tight races. The Republican electoral base is not as stable as it would appear."

He offered the caveat that the right wing pull of the Republican Party remains "very strong" and "for the moment, that is where the money is in terms of corporate sponsorship."

Walker attacked unions during his campaign -- and really wasn't challenged by media or others on his comments -- then cranked up his anti-union volume once in office. The Capitol was Republican controlled -- and so, for all practical purposes, was the state Supreme Court, even though it's supposed to be non-partisan.

Walker painted public workers -- teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses, city employees -- as the "haves" and sold that argument to turn collective bargaining in the Badger State on its head, getting passed game-changing legislation that severely curtailed bargaining rights and other union rights.

"Despite all their weaknesses and faults, unions are the bulwark of progressivism in Wisconsin and across the nation," Kersten said. "This could be a turning point. But, instead of it being the end of the labor movement, it might turn out to be the end of the beginning. Walker's attack … could energize union forces."

Wisconsin always has been considered a progressive state, and to basically roll back union rights could portend similar fights elsewhere.

"As [former Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin has said, the line in the sand is here," Kersten said. "If they take the beach in Wisconsin, other states -- and ultimately the federal government -- are next."

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO chalked Tuesday into the win column because voters flipped two traditional Republican districts.

"In today's historic elections, thousands of voters sent the message that we are a growing movement to reclaim the middle class," Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO, said in a blog, noting, "Wisconsinites took a great step to restore balance and accountability in the Wisconsin Legislature. Let's be clear, anyway you slice it, this is an unprecedented victory …. ."

Even if a change in Senate leadership didn't happen, "the real story of the recalls is that the middle class is fighting back and we are starting to win," said Stephanie Bloomingdale, state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. "In Wisconsin, we don't give up easily. This fight is not over."

People likely will look on the summer of the recalls as "an early engagement in a long fight over the size and scope of government in our new 'era of debt' -- record public and private debt -- that promises to make our politics nasty for the foreseeable future," Schier said.

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