Monday, March 14, 2011

Wisconsin State Senator Recall Update

Progressive groups are flashing cash towards recalling Republican state senators in Wisconsin who voted to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights. Since the Wisconsin assembly passed the Attack On Union Workers bill, groups vowing recall efforts in the badger state have raised upwards of $1 million. This is an impressive feat for such an unconventional fundraising effort. Recall campaigns rarely are launched on a national level, mostly because they target state elected officials.
The feeling among donors must be that this campaign is an efficient use of resources. I see the value question split into two parts. First, can a recall campaign be successful, and we'll define success as having the elections called and having a challenger win. If the threat proves credible, the second value of the recall campaigns would come into pay, which is the spectre of "accountability" as some progressive groups are describing. In value-neutral terms, let's just say that the recall campaign would have to be reproducible in other states. Ohio Republicans won't care about Republican losses in Wisconsin unless the results can generalize to other states. The recall campaign is about making unpopular Conservative policy goals less attractive to Conservative politicians in the short run. Essentially, can the recall campaign force ideological Republicans to respect their constituents' values and aspirations?

The threat against the Wisconsin senators has certainly proved credible. Organizers are well on their way to collecting the recall signatures ahead of schedule. This is only the first bit of the credibility puzzle. The election is the more important test. Certainly Dan Kapanke looks very vulnerable based on the 2010 election results in his own senate district. Additional polling seems to confirm the vulnerability for Dan Kapanke (La Crosse- 32) and Randy Hopper(Fond du Lac- 18), although that analysis comes with the huge caveat that hyper-local tests of candidates pose serious sampling problems even for the best polling organizations. My instinct is that the polling may understate rather than overstate Kapanke's trouble, considering that he lost the actual vote in the 32nd district in 2010 by a similar margin as the poll has him losing 1) before the union-busting debacle and 2) in a strong Republican year in Wisconsin. Whereas the polling has Kapanke down 41-57 against a generic challenger, he just lost 43-54 in the district in 2010. The results at the ballot box are not outside the confidence interval for the poll, so the poll doesn't demonstrate a shift against Kapanke in the electorate. While Kapanke (and Hopper) are certainly vulnerable, it's unclear that the legislative push to strip bargaining rights from public workers contributed to their weak positions.

A successful recall campaign against two state senators would not tip the balance in the Wisconsin Senate. The Senate has 19 Repbulicans and 14 Democrats currently; a two-seat flip would produce a 17-16 Republican majority. More importantly, the state house is still lopsidedly Republican, meaning that even if Democrats flipped more than two Senate seats, the Democrats wouldn't be able to reverse the union-bashing provisions until they retook the state house (and governorship). Success for unions means something much less concrete than providing control of the Wisconsin Senate to the Democrats. Prevention of other anti-worker bills might be a form of victory, but the broader progressive infrastructure is raising money on a scale too large for that fairly narrow goal.

As for whether recall accountability would be reproducible in other states, voters in 18 states can recall elected state officials, including Minnesota, where Republicans took the state Senate for the first time in history in 2010 and which receives a fair amount of cross-border news from Wisconsin. Ohio, where Gov. Kasich is intent on attacking public employee unions, does not allow recalls of state officials. Unions and Democrats are hoping for a measurable backlash to change the narrative of tea party gains and spending cuts on the backs of workers. That's a big goal, and it's one that people seem to be investing heavily in. It's also a less tangible goal than "more Democrats/Better Democrats." At the same time, the recall campaign will keep some good organizers employed, and in this economy, that can mean that their talent will stay available for this election cycle.

I don't see this as a rational use of resources for progressives, but it certainly is evocative of the need for a win. The recall campaign is the first best electoral hope for progressives since Scott Brown won the Senate Seat vacated by Ted Kennedy. My gut reaction is that the nearness of victory is why we're seeing such an outpouring of talent and resources for such a small tactical victory. On the other hand, I'm also confident that workers across Wisconsin are grateful for the support.

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