Keeping Score on the Wisconsin Recalls

Public employee unions and tea party supporters have been gathering signatures to trigger recall elections of, respectively, Republican and Democratic state senators in what amounts to a referendum on Republican Governor Scott Walker's policies limiting the privileges of public employee unions. What's the score? The Hill tells us that Democrats have succeeded in getting enough signatures to trigger a recall election on state Senator Dan Kapanke and Republicans have gotten enough to trigger a recall of state Senator Robert Wirch.

What are the chances of recall succeeding? Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in his excellent blog has provided the key numbers, the percentages of the vote received by Scott Walker and his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett in the November 2010 governor election. Kapanke represents the 32nd district in western Wisconsin, centered on La Crosse, where Walker beat Barrett by just 49.5%-48.9% of the vote. Western Wisconsin has been a good area for Democrats in the 2000s, one of the few rural and small town parts of America their presidential candidates have carried in 2000, 2004 and 2008, and Barack Obama carried the district 61%-38% in 2008.

The fact that Kapanke ran so far ahead of his ticket in 2008 suggests that he has personal strength, and the drop in the Democratic vote between 2008 and 2010 suggests he has enough strength to hold on. But the outcome has to be rated as uncertain.

Robert Wirch represents the 22nd district, which includes all but one township in Kenosha County plus two townships in western Racine County. This is historically Democratic territory; American Motors had a big plant in Kenosha and the United Auto Workers was always powerful here. But the district is also wholly within the 1st congressional district held since 1998 by Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, who is officially presenting his fiscal year 2012 budget today. The 22nd district voted 53%-46% for Scott Walker in 2010 after voting 57%-41% for Barack Obama in 2008. This reflects disenchantment with Democrats among white working class voters, a trend also seen in the Milwaukee County data Gilbert has provided in this blogpost. This suggests a lack of solidarity between public employee unions and members of private sector unions (or those who grew up in private sector union households).

That's not illogical. If, as I have written, public sector unions are a mechanism for the involuntary transfer of money from taxpayers to a Democratic party that backs higher public employee pay and minimal accountability, what does the private sector union member get? Lousier services for more money.

Anyway, it's interesting that the LaCrosse area, historically not as Democratic as the Kenosha area, has been more so lately--and it will be interesting to see how the recall elections go in these two districts.

Gilbert has pointed out that the result of the election today between state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and Democratic challenger Jo Ann Kloppenberg may be swayed by the fact that there are contests for county executive in the state's two largest and heavily Democratic counties, Milwaukee County and Dane County (Madison). But even if Kloppenberg wins, as many Republicans fear she will, that doesn't necessarily mean that Republicans will lose their state Senate majority in recall elections. The contests (with one possible exception) won't occur in those counties.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user OnTask

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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