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Outsiders Seek To Capitalize On Wis. Recall Elections

Wisconsin voters are headed to the polls for an unprecedented round of recall elections in response to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's move to limit collective bargaining rights of public employees.

In recall votes Tuesday and next week, control of the Republican-held state Senate is at stake, and with it, Walker's agenda.

This is normally the time of year in Wisconsin when politics fades into the background — but not this year. The energy that fueled massive protests at the state Capitol last February and March has spilled into some state Senate districts and onto TV airwaves.

After Walker signed a law limiting the bargaining rights of public workers, his opponents gathered tens of thousands of signatures to force recall elections for six Republican senators who supported the governor.

The Republican Party gathered its own signatures triggering recall elections against Democrats next Tuesday. If Democrats can come out ahead by a net of three seats, they'll take control of the Senate.

Mike McCabe, who heads the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group that tracks political spending, says total spending on the Senate recall races could hit $40 million. That would be more than double what was spent on races for the entire Legislature last year.

"We've been thrust onto a national stage," McCabe says. "These outside groups have decided that these elections are pivotal. They have to win them."

In certain media markets in Wisconsin, ads from out-of-state funders have taken over the airwaves. During a typical TV commercial break, one ad tells how a candidate is a friend of education. Thirty seconds later, another says that same candidate destroyed public schools.

In most cases, the ads have drowned out the candidates. But in a contest that could boil down to turnout, most have done what they can to reach out to voters.

"This recall is about the direction of the State of Wisconsin, and we cannot make a U-turn," says Republican Sen. Luther Olsen. He's facing a challenge from Democrat Fred Clark in a largely rural district.

Clark, a state representative, stressed his own credentials as a moderate and said Olsen let a lot of people down.

"What has happened here, under this governor and this leadership, has pitted Wisconsin neighbors against each other," Clark says. "That is tragic, that is unfortunate and it was avoidable."

While these recalls were ignited by the battle between Walker and unions, they've shifted to a fight over budget cuts and Walker.

Political professionals from outside Wisconsin have taken a keen interest in the state.

"I don't think we would see this level of effort if the parties didn't think these races could go either way," says polling expert Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin.

In 2012, Wisconsin will once again be a presidential battleground state and Walker may find himself facing the voters in a recall election.

The battle in the state is over far more than a group of Senate seats. Wisconsin has become a test of the nation's political mood.

Copyright 2020 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit Wisconsin Public Radio.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.