Think you’re tired of campaign season? Try Wisconsin.
The Badger State — which in the last year has been through the upheaval of heavy protest followed by state Senate recall elections - is headed for four major elections over the next seven months: a May Democratic primary for the recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the recall election itself in June that includes both Gov. Walker and targeted state senate seats, a contested Republican primary for US Senate in August, and the general election in November.
Each race will affect the next — control of state government hangs in the balance during the recall elections, and the results could drastically effect the momentum and enthusiasm of activists on both sides of the political divide going into the fall.
Operatives in both parties still consider the recall election the biggest prize in Wisconsin, the culmination of the year plus battle over Act 10, the law that Gov. Walker and the Republican-led legislature passed stripping most collective bargaining rights for most public unions. Democrats, having come up short in their attempts to retake the state Senate in the previous round of recall elections, also point to the June state Senate recalls as a way to stop Walker’s agenda, which they are argue has already been stifled.
“Last year was sort of a proxy recall,” one senior Democratic operative told TPM.
The problem? That was last year. The question now, the operative said, was whether Democrats could complete the goal of recalling Walker — a year after the effort was first launched. The hardcore activists on the Democratic side have been out collecting signatures for the string of recall elections since March and April of 2011, so there is a question of how much they have left in the tank.
A related issue is the Democratic primary set for May 8th, which while choose the candidate to take on Walker in the June 5th recall. Democrats say it’s the “x-factor” in the race and Republicans view it as their best chance to knock Democrats off course. If Democrats had coalesced around a single candidate, it would have given them a way to start the recall campaign immediately. Republicans hope to take advantage of a potentially damaging primary by driving a wedge between the candidates on the issue that started it all — support of public unions. It’s been no secret that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010 who lost to Walker by two percentage points, is not the favored candidate of labor. One senior Democratic operative said the unions see Barrett as “Walker-lite,” and thus are solidly behind former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, his chief rival in the primary.
The silver lining for Democrats is that with no candidate yet, Republicans can’t focus their energies. “Money in the only tool in the Walker toolbox, and he wants to make this not a referendum on him, but it’s hard to do that when there’s no opponent,” another Democrat told TPM.
Walker’s side says the Democratic efforts will prove to be more sound than fury. “A lot of people talk about the silent majority of folks who support what Governor Walker and the Republican legislature achieved with Act 10 last year. It’s that silent majority that needs to turn out to vote in an odd time to go to the polls,” one Republican operative told TPM in email. “From the thousands of volunteers I’ve seen show up to help verify recall signatures against Walker and four GOP senators, I would say the GOP base is very energized. I believe we will match the enthusiasm of the unions and the liberal base through out the summer and fall elections.”
But just as the Democrats face challenges with the primary, some Republicans worry about Walker’s numbers going into June. Despite public polling that has showed Walker’s approval rating rise and him besting possible Democratic challengers, another senior Republican told TPM that in private polling done for a major Wisconsin trade association, Walker’s approval numbers hadn’t moved since last year, despite spending millions on TV ads fighting the recall effort and defending the new anti-union law.
Privately, some Democratic operatives worry about the effect losing the Walker recall would have, with one telling TPM, “I think the feeling among Democrats is that if we don’t get Walker, the air is going to be let out of the ballon.”
And that’s where the final two elections could be affected. The Republican candidates for US Senate face a primary August 9th, pitting longtime Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson against former Congressman Mark Neumann (R-WI) and Speaker of the Wisconsin House Jeff Fitzgerald, a race that’s not yet really on anyone’s radar.
“No one is paying attention to the US Senate race right now,” one Republican operative said in an email. “That benefits Tommy. Once the recalls are over, and if for some reason Walker were to lose, I could see a retaliation of conservative anger that would push a more conservative GOP candidate to win the primary. As it stands, I still give the Vegas odds to Tommy though.” Another senior Republican said that the primary is actually good for Thompson, as it gives him a chance to remake his image in light of the Tea Party movement pushing the electorate to the right. But they still described the post-recall reaction of possibly miffed conservatives after a Walker loss as an “unknown.”
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) isn’t facing a serious challenge on the Democratic side of the Senate race and can use the time to raise money. Democrats also said she’s established herself as voice against Walker and is finding ways to get in the game even though she doesn’t have an opponent. And she probably needs to — the latest Marquette Law School poll of the state showed that a near 46 percent majority of registered voters hadn’t heard of the Congresswoman.
Of course, the fall will bring the presidential election as well. At the moment, President Obama holds a large lead over likely Republican nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
As it is, politics in the next 7 months in Wisconsin will be a domino effect. Depending on who gets on a roll first, the steps along the way could send the two parties in opposite directions.
“You either love Scott Walker or strongly dislike the Governor in Wisconsin,” a GOP operative told TPM. “I believe this will be a classic turn out battle.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.