Wisconsin recall elections explained

at 12:07 PM ET, 08/04/2011


Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), leans in to kiss his wife Jane during a victory party at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wis., on Tuesday, July 19, 2011. (Corey Wilson - AP)
In the next two weeks, eight Wisconsin state senators will face recall elections that have major implications for the state and for 2012. Here’s what you need to know.

* Why is this happening? In January, Republicans swept Wisconsin state government, assuming the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Republicans in the legislature, in conjunction with Gov. Scott Walker, put forward an austerity budget that ended collective bargaining for public employees.

Democrats fled the state to avoid voting on the measure. Thousands of protesters gathered at the state capitol in opposition to the law. After weeks of stalemate, Republicans separated the union provision from the rest of the budget, allowing them to vote on it without a quorum.

Walker signed the measure into law, provoking an immediate backlash. Democrats began gathering signatures on recall petitions against all eight eligible (see below) Republican state senators. Republicans responded by attempting to recall all eight eligible Democratic state senators, arguing that they shirked their duties by fleeing the state.

* Who is eligible for recall? In Wisconsin, any elected state official who is more than a year into his or her term can be recalled. That requirement is why Gov. Walker, about half the state Senate, and all of the House were not vulnerable to recall. To recall a state senator, petitioners must gather signatures equal to 25 percent of the votes cast for governor in that district in the last gubernatorial election. They have 60 days to do so.

Eight Democrats and eight Republicans had been in office long enough to be targeted. Campaigns were launched against all sixteen, but petitioners only gathered enough signatures to recall six Republicans and three Democrats.

* Who might be recalled? Republican state Sens. Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, and Luther Olsen were successfully targeted. Democratic Sens. Dave Hansen, Jim Holperin and Robert Wirch were successfully targeted.

* When are the recalls? One recall election has already happened: State Sen. Hansen beat Republican challenger David VanderLeest on July 19th. All six Republicans will face voters on Aug. 9th, and the remaining two Democrats will face voters on Aug. 16th.

The election dates are determined by when the recall petitions were filed and whether or not there were multiple challengers. The elections were originally scheduled for mid-July, with Republicans facing voters a week before Democrats. Multiple Republican challengers sparked primaries, pushing back the elections against Democrats to August.

Fearing a disadvantage by having their incumbents face voters so much earlier, Republicans ran “protest” candidates in the Democratic primaries to give their incumbents more time.

There were multiple Republicans vying for each Democratic state senator’s seat. However, a more formidable candidate failed to get the 400 valid signatures necessary to gain ballot access in the race against Hansen, which is why the general election happened the day that would have been the primary. 

* Is this the first time this has happened? Basically, yes. While there have been recalls of state legislators before, never have so many been targeted at once and with so much national attention and money involved.

In Wisconsin, two state senators have been recalled. Republican George Patak was forced out of office in 1996, after he voted in favor of a sales tax to build the future Brewers’ Stadium. Democrat Gary George was forced out after siding with Republicans on gambling legislation.

Only three times in American history has a recall election switched party control of a legislative chamber: In Michigan in 1983, Wisconsin in 1996, and California in 1995.

* Why does it matter? Republicans currently control the Wisconsin Senate by a 19-to-14 majority. That means if Democrats net three wins in the recall elections, they will take back the state Senate. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the collective bargaining law; thus, retaking the state Senate is Democrats’ best hope for blocking Gov. Walker’s agenda.

Even if the state Senate does not change hands, these races will be seen as a bellwether for 2012. While many new Republican governors are unpopular at home, President Obama is struggling in those same states. What happens in the Badger State will bolster one side in the debate over where the public really stands on economic policy.

Liberals discouraged by the 2010 elections and the rise of the tea party hope these fights will spark more enthusiasm going into 2012. Conservatives want to prove that in spite of high-profile protests, they have the winning argument and the true grassroots energy.

National groups on both sides have poured money and volunteers into the state: Unions, EMILY’s List and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are organizing against Republicans. The Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity (the conservative group founded by the Koch brothers), and Tea Party Express are working against Democrats.

Recall elections are on the rise nationally, and these high-profile races will likely only accelerate that trend.

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