This is a big week in Wisconsin — the culmination of months of protests, campaigning, legislative battling and litigation, since Republican Gov. Scott Walker began an ultimately successful push to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights. On Tuesday, voters will head to polls in six state Senate recalls, where Republican incumbents are all facing stiff Democratic challenges, with the possibility that Dems could flip control of the chamber and end one-party GOP rule after just seven months. And the vote will be closely watched nationally, read as a referendum on the wider anti-union push that other GOP governors have also undertaken.
The state Senate currently has a 19-14 Republican majority, with Democrats needing to gain at least a net three seats to gain control on the senate. (And even this would not be the end of it — they hope to recall Walker some time next year.) All in all, this is the closest this country’s system of government can get to a snap parliamentary election, with control of the chamber up for grabs.
Back in July, Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen easily won re-election in his recall race against a very flawed GOP challenger, after the party’s originally recruited candidate failed to collect enough valid petition signatures to get onto the ballot. Next week, two Democratic incumbents will be on the ballot in their own recalls, so even if Democrats pick up as many as four seats Tuesday, it would not be known for certain whether they have gained the chamber until after another week.
Under Wisconsin’s recall law, elected officials must have served at least one year of their current term before being recalled — thus exempting the half of the Senate that was just elected in 2010. With half of the state Senate up for election ever two years, this meant that only those senators who were last elected in 2008 could be targeted for recalls. (This is also why Democrats must wait until 2012 to recall Walker.) Both parties waged signature campaigns in all 16 eligible districts, targeting eight Republicans and eight Democrats, with the final result being that six Republicans and three Democrats had recalls triggered against them.
In order to initiate a recall, signatures of at least 25 percent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election, within the targeted district, must be collected in a 60-day window.
With the stakes so high, a lot of money has been flowing into the state. Indeed, the Wisconsin State Journal reports that according to election watchdogs, total spending by third-party groups has been reaching $30 million, and could go as high as $40 million for just these nine state Senate — compared to just $19.25 million that was spent in 2010 elections for 17 state Senate seats, and all 99 Assembly seats. (In addition, last year the amount spent on the gubernatorial race was $37 million.)
So what is the outlook for the races? Well, the simple fact is that because this mass-recall election is so unusual and without precedent, there is simply no conventional frame of reference around which to make a prediction. So on the one hand, the state Democratic Party has claimed that its internal polling shows them ahead in three of the six races and statistically tied in the others, and well ahead in the two races where they are playing defense — thus claiming that they are favored to win the Senate. On the other hand, as Greg Sargent reported, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has conducted recall polls for them, is also tamping down expectations: “The nature of the turnout is so uncertain that it really will make a huge difference. We’re dealing with big uncertainties.”