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.

When Darling's victory finally looked solid, Republican National Committee Chairman and Wisconsinite Reince Priebus took to his Twitter account to gloat about the results. The next morning, he was still poking his stick in Wisconsin Democrats' eyes.

Also gloating? The Tea Party Express, which immediately began taking credit for Republicans' ability to maintain control of the state Senate. Freedomworks dubbed it "The Wisconsin Union's Waterloo." (There may be little gloating next week, though, in the Northwoods election that has become a referendum on the tea party, as one of its leaders faces off against recalled Democratic state Sen. Holeprin.)

Despite all the invective and conspiracy theories--activists are petitioning the U.S. Attorney General to "launch a full-scale election fraud investigation"--it seems unlikely any true vote tampering will be found in the Waukesha results.

But Kathy "Wisconsin's Katherine Harris" Nickolaus has become an albatross around the Republican neck. A formal investigation for misconduct in the April election has been opened against her, and the most recent accusation only resurfaces the controversy that has surrounded her.

In the end, Waukesha saw the worst possible outcome for Wisconsin. Darling was expected to win her recall, and had Waukesha reported its results earlier, nothing would be made of the matter. But because of the manner of Waukesha's reporting there hangs in the air another putrid stink, where Nickolaus is again perceived to have raced in to save the GOP's bacon. Instead of getting the closure needed from the whole half-year-long boondoggle, the state has been left with a festering sore.

Currently, the Republicans still control the state Senate, although their vice grip has been weakened. With the new 17 to 16 majority, moderate state senators are suddenly much more important.

This one-vote majority depends on the final two recalls taking place next week, August 16:

  • District 12: Recalled Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin vs. Republican Kim Simac
  • District 22: Recalled Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch vs. Republican Jonathan Steitz

The results make glum the hopes for a successful recall of Walker in January. Even if the signatures are collected, the recall effort now has the stink of failure, and many middle-roaders may be less receptive to the continued rhetoric.

A larger concern is that, even if the willingness is still there at the grassroots level, will the willingness of the money people follow? Pro-union and Democratic groups poured upwards of $20 million into Wisconsin to change the balance of the state Senate by just two seats -- not even enough to gain a majority. With the union-busting measures already in place, and still widely popular amongst Republicans, further action is questionable. The mind is willing but the wallet is weak.

Randy Borntrager, political director of People for the American Way, which aired ads in support of Democratic challengers, told me that "if progressives can win in GOP districts like we did last night, Walker is in serious trouble." He added, "Right now we're focused on protecting the Democratic state senators up next week, but this process has made a Walker recall look more achievable, not less."

Meanwhile, Bryan Bliss, a digital campaign strategist who has been plugged into the recall effort on many fronts, said that the spirit for going after Walker in January is still there, but he's heard union leaders say that the priority is now elsewhere, especially Ohio.

"But they said they'd be back," said Bliss.