Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

GOP Survives Wisconsin Senate Recalls

In Election Analysis on August 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Last night, Badger State voters went to the polls to decide the controversial Wisconsin recall elections in six state Senate districts. All featured Republican incumbents defending their seats. Next Tuesday, two Democratic incumbents will face the voters.

Democrats were successful in defeating two of the GOP incumbents but, overall, the results did not accomplish what the union organizers who gathered the necessary petitions to force a vote had desired. At the beginning of the evening, the Senate party division was 19R-14D. With the two Democratic victories, the worst case scenario for the GOP after the completion of all recall voting will be 17R-16D. Since only Democratic incumbents are before the voters on August 16th, the Republicans can only increase their majority or remain clinging to a one-seat advantage.

Turnout was predictably high. In most cases the numbers reached approximately 80 percent of what appear to be normal general election voter participation levels. This helped the GOP win two-thirds of the contests. Low turnout elections are normally won by the side that is most driven to turnout. Since the unions and Democrats were forcing the recalls to protest GOP Gov. Scott Walker and the legislature’s actions to curtail the public employee union benefits and organizing rights, it was they who should have been more energized. The districts were largely Republican, but President Obama did win all eight of the jurisdictions back in 2008. So, it is conceivable the Democrats could have done better.

The two seats they won were rather expected. Sen. Dan Kapanke (R), who represents a southwestern Wisconsin seat including the city of Lacrosse, suffered the biggest defeat, losing 45-55 percent to Democrat Jennifer Schilling. Kapanke, you may remember, challenged Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI-3) in their 2010 congressional race, losing 46-50 percent – a better result than he received last night in trying to defend his own position. Of the seats facing recall, this 32nd district was by far the most Democratic. The President received 61 percent here in 2008. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) who unseated then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in 2010, scored only 49 percent here. Walker posted 42 percent. In the other post-general election political race, the hotly contested 2011 battle for a key state Supreme Court seat, Republican incumbent Judge David Prosser, who won statewide, failed to carry the 32nd district. He registered only 44 percent. Last night’s recall here produced the biggest Democratic victory of the night, but in this type of district, such a result was largely expected.

The other Democratic victory featured a scandal-tainted Republican incumbent in the 18th district. Sen. Randy Hopper was the subject of controversy regarding an extra-marital affair and a messy divorce while the labor unrest in the state capitol was occurring. He lost his Senate seat last night by a tight 49-51 percent margin to Democrat Jessica King. Both new Senators will have to defend their seats in the 2012 general election, as that is the normal election time for the two even-numbered districts. Wisconsin state Senators receive four-year terms. The elections are staggered so that half of the seats stand for election every two years. The odd-numbers run with the governor; evens with the President. The 18th district is much more Republican than the previously mentioned 32nd district. Obama posted 51 percent in 2008. The 2010-11 District 18 results gave Sen. Johnson 59 percent, Gov. Walker 57 percent; and Judge Prosser 53 percent.

The Republican incumbents carried their districts last night with victory margins of 60 percent (Sen. Rob Cowles in District 2), 58 percent (Sen. Sheila Harsdorf in District 10), 54 percent (Sen. Alberta Darling in District 8), and 52 percent (Sen. Luther Olsen in District 14). Of these, the Harsdorf victory is the most impressive, as the Republican numbers were not as strong as in the other districts. Judge Prosser, for example, failed to carry this seat in 2011, scoring 48 percent of the vote.

Though the GOP lost two seats in the recall process, they appear to have survived all of the post-budget crisis action in relatively good shape. In the face of superior labor union and Democratic Party political organizing, they turned back the Supreme Court challenge and held onto the state Senate majority after enacting the controversial public employee union legislation that rocked the state capitol with nationally covered protests and featured the Democrats failing to report to the Senate for weeks. All of this in a state that routinely elects Democrats to positions of power. Wisconsin will clearly be a major battleground state for the coming 2012 election.
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