No one is expected to benefit from the money of billionaire David Koch and his stealth political organizations more than state Sen. Alberta Darling. One of Koch’s key connections to the Wisconsin Legislature, Darling is fighting challenger Sandy Pasch to retain her seat representing Senate District 8.
As co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, Darling is as responsible for Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial budget as he is. The budget slashed $1.6 billion from public education, gutted healthcare funding and support for seniors and gave $140 million in tax breaks to special interests.
It’s that sort of action that has repeatedly earned Darling a 100-percent rating from Americans for Prosperity, one of Koch’s most visible political groups. She’s also received awards from Koch organizations for promoting his corporate-right agenda.
“Darling has unlimited money” via Koch, says Kelly Steele, of We Are Wisconsin, a group spearheading the recall of GOP state senators. “There are outside resources that are going to come in for her in unlimited fashion.”
Darling is a dues-paying member of the corporate-right group American Legislative Exchange Council, which creates cookie-cutter bills to benefit its corporate directors and then disseminates them to state legislatures via lawmakers whom it controls through campaign contributions. The sudden rush of union-busting and voter ID bills that flew through newly Republican-controlled legislatures earlier this year were all written by ALEC, according to The Center for Media and Democracy.
First elected to the Assembly in a May 1990 special election, Darling has evolved from a moderate Republican into a right-wing poster candidate. “She did get my vote 20 years ago … she used to be the moderate Republican from the 8th Senate District, and that is not true anymore,” Pasch said during a July 24 debate – one of the few times Darling has agreed to face her opponent.
In fact, Darling was once on the board of Planned Parenthood. But as religious extremists and then Tea Party radicals commandeered the state’s Republican Party, Darling swam with the tide. She now “marches hand in hand with the right-wing rhetoric,” Pasch said during a May interview with WiG.
Darling’s voting record supports Pasch’s assertion. She’s received zero ratings from Fair Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin, while at the other end of the spectrum she’s received perfect scores from right-wing groups such as Wisconsin Right to Life.
One of the many areas where Darling and Pasch differ is LGBT civil rights. Darling is a fierce opponent, while Pasch, who has a gay son, supports equality.
“Darling consistently votes against LGBT equality at every opportunity,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. “Alberta’s voting record shows an increased tendency to follow the Republican leadership, regardless of the issue.”
Perhaps Darling recognizes that drawing attention to her ties with the anti-gay, religious right could hurt her chances at the polls in Shorewood, Fox Point and River Hills, Darling hasn’t uttered the word “gay” on the campaign trail – this despite voting in lockstep with the anti-gay group Wisconsin Family Action. Likewise, WFA is steering clear of the race, probably mindful that its presence could create a backlash.
As she’s run to the right in recent years, Darling has also fallen off her game. Her constituents complain about her increasing lack of availability to them. She’s grown wobbly in public, rambling incoherently during speeches in a way that resembles some of her more notorious Tea Party colleagues.
“Wisconsin is one of the most frugal states in the nation, as evidenced by Kohl’s department store and how successful they do in our state and have blossomed throughout the country,” she said during a June speech on the state Senate floor to explain her draconian budget cuts to middle- and lower-class programs. It’s just one of several odd statements by Darling that have been heavily mocked online.
Observers speculate that the combination of her propensity for gaffes and her growing shakiness in public are behind her decision to avoid as many debates with Pasch as possible. When the Milwaukee Press Club invited the two to appear together, Pasch accepted but Darling said no, no doubt fearful of risking a side-by-side comparison in front of a group of seasoned observers.
Darling was booed for dodging a town hall forum with U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner in Whitefish Bay on July 24. More than 100 constituents attended the meeting specficially to ask her questions about her budget.
“My concern with Senator Darling is that she has not been available,” said Shorewood resident Pablo Muirhead at the event. “She disconnected her phone in February. …We might disagree with her but let’s see your face.”
At the same time she has grown elusive, Darling has grown bolder in her efforts to promote the corporate-right agenda. This year she introduced legislation on behalf of ALEC that was too over-the-top even for Walker, who vetoed it.
Darling, along with GOP Sens. Luther Olsen, Sheila Harsdorf and Randy Hopper – all of whom face recall races – had inserted legislation into the Wisconsin budget bill to give a tax break to moist, smokeless tobacco products. The measure met with outrage because it would have lowered the price of smokeless products that target kids with their packaging and candy flavors, according to Emily Rohloff, a spokeswoman for a statewide coalition of health groups.
Steele says the bad publicity Darling has received over such universally unpopular actions combined with an energized, grassroots movement for Pasch are giving momentum to the challenger.
“Sandy Pasch is running an incredibly strong campaign and she has the resources and momentum to be victorious,” Belanger says. “The district is changing in terms of Alberta Darling. People are really starting to realize that she does not represent their interests, whether it’s the LGBT community or others in her district. People are tired of that.”
Ultimately, Steele says it will come down to which side succeeds in getting out the vote. He believes Pasch will prevail, despite Darling’s formidable cash advantage – not only because Pasch is a far better candidate but because her supporters are motivated. Darling’s, on the other hand, are thought to be mostly paid operatives.
“These million-dollar checks that these giant corporations throw around like pocket change, you can buy TV with it, but you can’t knock on doors with it,” Steele said. “The ground operation that we’ve put together in these districts is really impressive. A lot of it’s organic. People are coming out in record numbers because they see how out of control this has gotten so quickly. Our volunteer numbers are through the roof.”