No Closure for Wisconsin After Recall Elections Fail

Despite millions in outside spending, the GOP's state Senate majority remains intact, and accusations of fraud have left the state divided

In the hullabaloo of the six legislative recall elections held in Wisconsin on Tuesday, state Democratic Party spokesman and former Onion writer Graeme Zielinski went before reporters and declared that the party suspected Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus of tampering with vote totals, saying there were "dirty tricks afoot" and calling for an investigation. A statement titled "Waukesha County Tampering" soon appeared on the Party's website.

An hour later, party Chair Mike Tate was already backing off and calling it a "heat-of-the-moment statement" caused by "the uncertainties that arose from a recent election, known too well." The charge has since been removed from the party's website.

The election "known too well" was the State Supreme Court race on April 5 when, well after vote totals had been reported, Nickolaus "found" 14,315 votes saved on her personal computer. The election miracle swung in favor of conservative Justice David Prosser to the tune of 7,500 votes, who ended up holding his seat for another decade.

Went the dust cleared, standing in the smoldering rubble of the state's political environment were the four Republicans and two Democrats who had been expected to win:

  • District 32: Democratic Rep. Jennifer Shilling (55%) defeated recalled Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke (45%)
  • District 14: Recalled Republican Sen. Luther Olsen (52%) defeated Democratic Rep. Fred Clark (48%)
  • District 18: Democrat Jessica King (51%) defeated recalled Republican Sen. Randy Hopper (49%)
  • District 10: Recalled Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (58%) defeated Democrat Shelly Moore (42%)
  • District 2: Recalled Republican Sen. Robert Cowles (60%) defeated Democrat Nancy Nusbaum (40%)
  • District 8: Recalled Republican Sen. Alberta Darling (54%) defeated Democratic Rep. Sandy Pasch (46%)

The Government Accountability Board told me the certification process for winners Shilling and King will take a few days, with Aug. 17 the earliest either could be sworn in.

With approximately $30 million spent on the 6 races, each vote in the six recalls cost about $85. The District 8 contest between Darling and Pasch became the most expensive in state legislative history, alone accounting for $9 million in spending for 73,567 votes, or a stroke-inducing $122.33 spent per vote cast.

One longtime fundraiser who has managed campaigns for prominent Wisconsin Republican candidates told me he was deeply disappointed that La Crosse Senator Dan Kapanke lost, calling him "a genuinely good guy" who "got lied to and then lied to himself." He suspects that today's extremist Wisconsin Republican is one who is lashing out against the maltreatment Wisconsin conservatives have long been perceived to endure.

Mostly though, he's depressed by the whole pooch-screw, noting how the flood of out-of-state money "erases the character of the candidates" and "eliminates any local flavor of our politics." He concluded, "This race confirms that nationwide interests just need faceless pawns now, not actual people."

Given how out of state money controlled campaign messaging on both sides, it seems the biggest casualty of Tuesday night was the Tip O'Neill aphorism that "all politics is local."

It's a challenge not to agree with that GOP fundraiser. To stay in office, Alberta Darling, a lifelong moderate, took up the rhetoric of the tea party. She was rewarded with a gravy pipe of national money from those sympathetic to taxes-are-sin dogma. A perfect example of this ideological polarization was how Darling received the full-blown endorsement of the powerful anti-abortion organization Wisconsin Right To Life even though she sat on the board of Planned Parenthood for years.

Thanks to the new redistricting bill Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed furtively at the last minute yesterday, Darling will never have to worry about such a close race again. Then again, if the criminal electioneering charges against her and her supporters stick, all the redistricting in the world won't help her keep office.

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Abe Sauer grew up shoveling cow manure and now covers politics. He is working on a book of humor about North Dakota.

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