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Tight race expected in final Wisconsin recalls

at 03:28 PM ET, 08/15/2011


Norma Furger, right, a school teacher from Lodi, Wisconsin, reacts to the news that Democratic candidates were losing ground in last Tuesday’s recalls. (Steve Apps - AP)
The Wisconsin recall fight ends Tuesday, and while the state Senate is no longer in play, Republicans could cut into the gains Democrats made last week. One Democratic seat in tomorrow’s election is probably safe; the race for the other one is very close.

“Here we’re fighting on our turf,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”

State Sen. Jim Holperin appears to have the slight edge in the hotly-contested 12th district as a well-liked incumbent, but increased Republican enthusiasm in this GOP-leaning territory makes it basically a toss-up.

Right now, Republicans have a 17-to-16 majority in the state Senate, thanks to the Democratic victories in last Tuesday’s recalls, when six Republicans faced challenges and two lost.

A GOP victory tomorrow would futher discourage Democrats and labor in the Badger State. Democrats had hoped to take control of the upper chamber and fell one win short.

During the battle over legislation spearheaded by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to severely restrict collective bargaining by public employee unions, state Republicans triggered recalls against three Democrats who fled the state to avoid voting on the legislation. One, state Sen. Dave Hansen (D), easily defeated a weak Republican challenger.

Of the remaining two Democrats facing recalls, Holperin is by far the more vulnerable. His district went 57 percent for Walker in 2010, and only 53 percent for President Obama in 2008. Obama performed better in every other state senate district held by a Democrat — and in seven held by Republicans. Holperin faces Kim Simac on Tuesday, a local tea party activist.

The other state senator targeted for recall tomorrow, Bob Wirch, is statistically safer; his district went 53 percent for Walker and 57 percent for Obama in 2008. He also faces a political newcomer — Jonathan Steitz, a corporate lawyer who works in Chicago. Spending here suggests the race is not nearly as heavily contested.

Polls are not much help in predicting the contests’ outcome. Republicans are touting an automated survey that showed the race for Holperin’s seat as too-close-to-call. Democrats counter by pointing to an automated poll that shows both Holperin and Wirch with double-digit leads. (The Washington Post does not publish automated poll results.)

“Our polling shows a bump [in the Holperin race] after last Tuesday’s election, that it’s neck and neck,” said Adam Temple, spokesperson for the Republican State Leadership Committee. “It’s anybodys race at this point.”

Democrats agree that the Holperin race will be tight.

Polling suggesting these races should be easy is wrong,” said Kelly Steele, spokesman for the labor coalition We Are Wisconsin. “Anyone in the know here will tell you Holperin is a toss-up, and the activity on the ground in the district ... along with the huge TV dump on the Republican side suggests they’re definitely pulling out all the stops. Wirch is safer, but by no means a lock.”

“We assume it will be a very close race,” said Holperin himself. But he denied that last week’s results had discouraged his supporters. “I dont think the results last week in Wisconsin had or are having any bearing on this race. We’ve seen no drop off in enthusiasm.”

The Wirch race is more of a longshot for the GOP, but even there Republicans say momentum is on their side.

It’s “absolutely a tossup,” said Steitz communications director Dan Hunt. “In the last week we’ve felt it turn in our direction. Our voters are just a bit more motivated now and I think that puts us slightly in the lead.”

The campaign’s own polling, he said, had them slightly behind but within the margin of error.

“We had a great influx of volunteeers starting Wednesday,” said Simac spokesman Matt Capristo. But he added that “it could just be the final week.”

The campaign is trying to focus ontrying to defeat Holperin, not the recall contest’s statewide or national implications: “I think people will see what they want to out of this race.”

Spending on both sides has been about equal. While the Democratic incumbents have a huge financial advantage in both races, says Mike McCabe of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, outside spending has worked to even the playing field. As in last week’s recalls, the candidate spending is insignificant compared to money pouring in from third-party players.

While reported spending is lopsided in favor of Democrats, when estimates of the spending by groups not required to make financial disclosures is included, the money evens out, with Republicans possibly having a slight edge.

Outside interest group spending appears to be approaching $5 million in the Holperin race. The Wirch race is less competitive; according to McCabe, most of the advertising is through direct mail rather than television, and outside groups have spent only about $2 million. However, there’s been a big push for Steitz on conservative talk-radio, and the race has tightened in recent days.

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