MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin’s war on public unions comes to a head Tuesday, when six Republican state senators face recall elections. If voters unseat three of them, Democrats will take control of the state Senate, and could derail Gov. Scott Walker’s crusade against public employee unions.
Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, which took effect July 1, made far greater changes to public employees’ collective-bargaining rights than it did to the state’s budget deficit.
The bill led to a national uproar, and to nine recall elections in Wisconsin.
Democratic incumbent Dave Hansen of Green Bay won the first racein July, with 66 percent of the vote, but the stakes are higher in the next round, with control of the state Senate at stake. And a strong showing by Democrats would add juice to the effort to recall Gov. Walker. He is eligible for recall in January.
Of the six recalls slated for Tuesday, Aug. 9, the most expensive has been the one aimed at state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.
Darling has raised $1.2 million and spent $1.1 million of it. Her opponent, Assemblywoman Sandy Pasch, has raised $622,000 and spent $558,300 as of Aug. 2, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Darling, who has spent more than 20 years in the Legislature, defended her support of the Budget Repair Bill in a recent debate, saying, “We had the audacity to take on the special interests. We are Wisconsin and we will stand up for the people to put the state on the right track for jobs.”
Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, told the forum that Darling has become “too extreme.” She criticized Darling’s support of cuts to education, and said Darling has failed to bring jobs to her district.
The most vulnerable incumbent is thought to be Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac. Hopper filed for divorce in 2010 and his alleged mistress, a 25-year-old Republican aide, was given a state job by Gov. Walker’s chief of staff. Hopper’s ex-wife and his maid have been reported to have signed his recall petition.
Hopper is opposed by Oshkosh Deputy Mayor Jessica King, who lost to Hopper by 163 votes in the 2008 general election.
Also considered vulnerable is state Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, who was cleared this year of ethics charges. Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board determined that he did not violate lobbying laws when he paid off a personal debt to the City of La Crosse for new lighting at a baseball park with money from a charity funded through organizations that employ lobbyists.
Those charges have not been a central issue in his race against Assemblywoman Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. In Kapanke’s only debate with Shilling, he said he is being recalled “for a single vote that he felt was in the best interest of Wisconsin” – his vote for the Budget Repair Bill. And he said his opponent has no alternative plan to address the state’s projected $3 billion budget shortfall.
Shilling calls Kapanke a “rubber stamp” for the “extreme” Republican agenda. “Citizens are upset because their voices aren’t being heard,” Shilling said during the debate. “Their government no longer seems to care about democracy. They have decided to channel their energy and passion into holding their elected leaders accountable.”
Incumbent Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, is pitted against teachers’ union official Shelly Moore, D-Hudson. Harsdorf has been a member of the Assembly and Senate for more than two decades.
In their first debate, Harsdorf cited the familiar need to “stand up to the special interests” to explain her support for the anti-union bill. Harsdorf said Moore is running for the state Senate seat because she supports collective bargaining, which Walker’s bill prohibits to public employees for all issues other than salary.
Moore said her core values are “protecting senior citizens, promoting a fair and transparent tax structure and building a future for the states’ children – [which] are being neglected by current officeholders.”
Incumbent Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, faces Assemblyman Fred Clark, D-Ripon. Clark has been running hard-hitting ads linking Olsen to the closing of an elementary school. Olsen responded by saying, “What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular.”
Finally, incumbent Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, is challenged by Nancy Nusbaum, D-DePere. They have not held a debate yet – which has sparked debate. They agreed to do so on Monday, the day before election.
Nusbaum has criticized Cowles for his positions on Social Security, Medicare, public union representation and schools.
Cowles told the Post Crescent newspaper that Nusbaum’s issues are “completely unreasonable” because the issues are federal. “I wouldn’t consider mentioning or attacking my colleagues on the other side of the aisle for things that the president’s doing,” Cowles said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The recalls have generated record-setting donations. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a self-described “nonpartisan watchdog group working for clean, open and honest government and reforms that make people matter more than money in politics,” reports that 29 registered special-interest groups spent more than $12.5 million on the recalls.
Democracy Campaign representative Mike McCabe, who estimates total spending for the recalls will exceed $30 million, says, “These elections have been taken out of the hands of people in our state, and folks from interest groups and corporations and unions from outside of our state are doing all the talking.”