Two steps forward

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Despite rising statewide unemployment and a groundswell of anger about GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s policies toward the middle and working classes, corporate-backed Republican lawmakers narrowly clung to control of the Wisconsin Senate following historic recall elections on Aug. 9.

Republicans retained four of the six Senate seats challenged by Democrats, leaving them with a 17-16 advantage in the chamber.

Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, handily defeated Republican incumbent Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, by a 55-45 margin. Democrat Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, edged out Randy Hopper, R-Empire, by 51-49. Hopper’s campaign was doomed by marital and ethical lapses.

Democrats needed to take three of the races to reclaim the Senate. Although they failed, the election revealed significant vulnerability for the Wisconsin GOP as it heads into a major election next year.

Democrats made strong showings in solidly Republican districts, scoring 40 percent or better in every race and coming within striking distance in the effort to recall Sen. Luther Olsen. His district, which he retained with 52 percent of the vote, is so solidly Republican that he hasn’t even faced a Democratic challenger in more than 16 years.

Voter turnout was at “presidential levels” in many wards, according to poll watchers.

All of the incumbent Republicans oppose LGBT equality and all of the Democratic challengers support it.

Ray Vahey, of the Milwaukee-based LGBT advocacy group Equality Wisconsin, said he expects the backlash against the state’s Republican leaders to gain momentum as voters begin to feel more of the sting of Walker’s agenda in the coming months.

“People have not felt yet the dreadful impact from the budget and from other acts that (Republicans) have pushed through,” Vahey said. “And the wholesale disenfranchisement of minorities, the aged and the poor through the voter ID bill and the attack on immigrants and other minorities will have an effect that (Republicans) did not intend. I believe that it will drive us closer and closer together. I think it will dawn on people that equality is not safe for any of us until it’s safe for all of us and that economic justice is a civil right.”

Fair Wisconsin director Katie Belanger also tried to look at the upside of the election on the morning after. “We are happy that two strong pro-equality allies were elected last night and that we are continuing to gain more allies in the state Senate,” she said.

Many recall voters were likely unaware of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that first-time unemployment claims in Wisconsin rose during the second quarter of this year at triple the rate of the first quarter, propelling the state into second place for the highest rate in the nation. Only Kentucky had a higher unemployment claims rate for the second quarter.

Right-leaning media outlets, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suppressed the report. Walker, who was endorsed by MJS, ran on a pledge to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin.

Voters in the recall races also had to wade through a daily onslaught of misinformation from both sides in the most expensive state Senate campaigns in Wisconsin history. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign re-ports that so far more than $35 million in spending has been tallied in nine recall races, including three targeting Democrats. One of the latter races has already occurred, and two others are scheduled for Aug. 16.

The amount of spending on the recall races has dwarfed the $19.3 million spent in 115 legislative races in the state last year.  The final tally could surpass the $37.4 million spent in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

The lion’s share of money on the right came from out-of-state corporate interests, most of it from front groups for billionaires David and Charles Koch. They stand to gain lucrative no-bid contracts from the state under GOP leadership.

The Koch-backed groups Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth teamed up with the anti-gay group Wisconsin Family Action on a scheme to send fraudulent absentee ballot applications to voters in the final weeks of the campaign. The mailers listed a return date after the election.

Randy Stoffel, an out gay man who takes care of his elderly parents, said his Washington County household was among those that received the deceptive ballots. His mother, a registered Democrat, was planning to fill one out and return it, but Stoffel interceded, he said.

“I’m afraid with this ballot thing that a lot of older people are going to think they’ve cast their vote and not go to the polls,” Stoffel told WiG two days before the election. Stoffel said he spoke with several seniors in Menomonee Falls who were planning to do just that before he explained to them that the mailers were a scam.

A number of irregularities were reported on election night in the race between anti-gay incumbent Alberta Darling and pro-equality challenger Sandy Pasch. Returns in that race were held up for several hours by Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, who came to national fame earlier this year when she suddenly “found” 7,000 unreported votes for right-wing Supreme Court Justice David Prosser after his challenger had already declared victory.

Darling, one of the Koch brothers’ staunchest allies in Wisconsin, had unlimited access to campaign cash, making her race was the most expensive of them all. She defeated Pasch 54-46 by managing to exceed turnout for the 2008 presidential race in the religious-right portions of Senate District 8, including Menomonee Falls, Germantown and Waukesha.

Pasch’s defeat was especially poignant for equality advocates and other progressives. A tireless campaigner with a squeaky clean record, Pasch was seen by many as the best hope of scoring the upset that could have handed control of the Senate back to her party.

An enthusiastic overflow crowd at the Sheraton Hotel in Brown Deer waited until late in the evening to celebrate Pasch’s victory. They watched with dismay as Pasch’s lead for most of the night evaporated as reports from right-wing districts trickled in after the other five races had been called.

“That district was always going to be a very tough district for a progressive to win,” Belanger said. “As close as Sandy came was an indication of just how hard she and all of the volunteers worked to win that seat.”

Looking at the recalls as a “dress rehearsal” for 2012, Brenda Lewiston said Democrats proved they were battle ready. An out Pasch supporter, Lewiston helped collect signatures for the petitions to recall Darling and knocked on doors on Pasch’s behalf throughout the campaign.

“This race was phenomenal in terms of party organization,” Lewiston said.

Lewiston was among the volunteers attending Pasch’s victory party who either witnessed or heard about attempts at voter suppression on Election Day. Employees at Glendale City Hall misinformed voters that they weren’t supposed to cast ballots on Aug. 9, Lewiston said.

Also among those watching Pasch’s election with great interest was Rob Zerban, who’s taking on U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan in 2012. Ryan, who authored a plan to turn Medicare over to private, for-profit insurance companies, is expected to be the nation’s No. 1 legislative target for Democrats next year.

“It certainly is a challenge for Democrats to win seats in Republican districts (like Darling’s),” Zerban said. “Everyone must turn their focus now on Paul Ryan.”

Pasch supporters seemed to have their eye focused primarily on Walker’s future. Buoyed by high Democratic numbers in Republican districts, they expressed confidence that Walker will not survive a recall effort next year. With every new report of a Democratic gain, they chanted, “Recall Walker, recall Walker.”

The Democratic Party plans to begin circulating petitions to recall the governor in January.