The Day of Reckoning in Wisconsin Recall Fight

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Outside groups, finger-pointing and acrimony have nearly eclipsed the original reason six state senators face voters today

Wisconsin protesters on steps - Darren Hauck Reuters - banner.jpg

Wisconsin is tired of standing.

First the state was told to "Stand with Walker."

Ever since then, it's been "Stand with Rob Cowles." "Stand with Shelia." "Stand with Senator Kapanke." "Stand with Senator Dave Hansen." Nationally, the AFL-CIO asked all of America to "Stand with Wisconsin." Meanwhile, outside parties are waterboarding Wisconsin voters with cash as wild accusations become the norm and the entire state devolves into a Tennessee Williamsian dysfunctional family.

On Thursday, Republican Senator Dale Schultz leveled a shocking allegation that Governor Walker had dry-gulched him into missing the vote on the budget bill that eliminated collective bargaining, where, Schultz claims, he had planned to offer a compromise amendment. Schultz, a moderate, avoided recall earlier this year, even though he faced an outraged constituency.

That came just a week or so after a Green Bay business leader came forward with a tale of other Walker shenanigans. The businessman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that recalled Republican Senator Robert Cowles had confided that the only reason he voted for the bill was because "the governor's office told us if we didn't give them our support, they would run a tea party candidate against us." Cowles immediately shot back against the claims, but the two senators' allegations together suggest the GOP hardline may be cracking. Indeed, none of the Republican senators facing recall have featured Walker in their campaign ads. A comedic demonstration of this distancing come froms GOP Senator Randy Hopper, whose recall campaign website features the legislator standing beside former Republican governor Tommy Thompson instead of Walker.

(Thompson, a heavyweight in Wisconsin politics, has been curiously absent in the recall brouhaha, likely because he is expected to run for retiring Senator Herb Kohl's seat in 2012, and fears alienating voters statewide.)

For the record, six of the historic eight remaining recall elections occur on Tue., Aug. 9:

  • District 32 General: Recalled Republican Senator Dan Kapanke vs. Rep. Jennifer Shilling
  • District 14 General: Recalled Republican Senator Luther Olsen vs. Rep. Fred Clark
  • District 18 General: Recalled Republican Senator Randy Hopper vs. Jessica King
  • District 10 General: Recalled Republican Senator Sheila Harsdorf vs. Shelly Moore
  • District 8 General: Recalled Republican Senator Alberta Darling vs. Rep. Sandy Pasch
  • District 2 General: Recalled Republican Senator Robert Cowles vs. Nancy Nusbaum

Even the Democrat candidates have largely abandoned the original reason for the recalls -- state restrictions on collectively bargaining -- for the language of the national debate: Obamacare; Ryancare; taxes; debt; abortion; jobs. In a few cases, Republicans have leveraged stewing,1960s-era state sentiments about lily-livered hippie protesters.

The Wisconsin hippodrome has provided no shortage of electoral spectacle.

Last week I gave up keeping track of which accusations the Government Accountability Board was investigating and which would be left to the judgement of AM talk radio and Twitter. Americans for Prosperity claims it made a printing error when it mailed absentee ballot applications with a return date Aug. 11, two days after most of the elections. That AFP, a "nonpartisan" 501(c)(3) organization was using the return mailing address of Wisconsin Family Action, a 501(c)(4), was hardly sexy enough to even elicit mention in the scandal.

Wisconsin Right to Life was accused of running (another) misinformation GOTV campaign similar to AFP's. Pro-union group Wisconsin Jobs Now was accused of giving away food as a reward for those who voted early, an election violation.

The press release roll at Wiscpolitics.com swells daily with a litany of accusations, denials and counter-accusations, inspiring a desire to take a steamy shower after each reading. In the last week, it seems nearly every campaign's messaging has largely devolved to calling the opposing campaign liars. And outside groups appear to have hired an army of monkeys to type "For immediate release..."

Sample recent releases:

  • "Wisc. Jobs Now: Files GAB complaint against Friends of Alberta Darling, We're Watching, and other voter suppression agents"
  • "Cowles Campaign: Cowles to Nusbaum: Stop lying about my record"
  • "WisDems: Randy Hopper repeats job lies"
  • "We Are Wisconsin: Grasping at straws, Harsdorf continues to lie about record of raising taxes, defending corporations"
  • "WisDems: The truth behind Republican lies about Sandy Pasch"
  • "WisGOP: Files complaint over voter bribery by Pasch connected interest group"
  • "WisDems: BREAKING: Is Jonathan Steitz renting to sex offender in noncompliance?"

Oh Jesus, is he?!

Dem. Senator Wirch, who faces a recall election Tuesday, claimed to have brought a company to Wisconsin, only to have that company issue a statement more or less calling him a liar.

An ad running against Dem. Rep. Clark accused the challenger to recalled GOP Senator Olsen of having run a red light and plowed down a bicyclist, a charge Politifact actually took up, finding it true, mostly because of the existence of a Faces-of-Death-like traffic video of the accident (which was of course included in the ad).

Mistresses. Wives. Unpaid child support. People who happened to be in the same room for a few minutes. It's all become fair game.

Things became truly absurd when a state Capitol worker, driven mad by cleaning up the heart-shaped balloons released daily in the dome, accidentally cut himself with a knife in an altercation with a protester. For conservative news organizations it was a gift from heaven: Unionized state employee stabs self trying to pop heart balloon of leftist hippie.

Then, last week, the La Crosse offices of the union-organized third party We Are Wisconsin were reduced to rubble by a sudden fire, providing the perfect visual metaphor for the whole state's political atmosphere. As an appropriate coda to the whole shebang, the Tea Party Express, which came out of some little corner of American political hell, toured the the state in the days before the elections.

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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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