The aftermath of the Wisconsin recall election

Aug 10, 2011

The results for the Wisconsin recall election are in. Now what? Thomas Holbrook and Michael Fletcher chatted Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET about what the results mean and what is likely to happen now that the elections are over.

Last night was a big night here in Wisconsin, leaving some voters elated and others a bit deflated.  I'm interested to hear your questions and I hope I can answer them for you.

Good afternoon. This is Michael Fletcher from the Post. I covered the recall elections and much of the fight over Gov. Walker's budget repair bill. I've also tracked similar efforts in other states. I look forward to your questions.

What are the prospects for (a) the Republicans ,(b) the Democrats, particularly those volunteers who staked their efforts in the recall effort? Are their endeavours fruitless, or is there any hope of retrieving their positions in the near future? As you may imagine, our spirits are rather low at this point, and we could use some encouragement--- or at least, reassurance.

Even though today has to be a dismal day for Democrats and their allies, it would be my guess that the recall effort will change the tenor of politics in Wisconsin. Already, Gov. Walker has talked about reaching out to Democrats and trying to be more inclusive. That is consistent with the views he expressed during the recall campaign when he offered no apologies for his policies, but said that he should have telegraphed them more. So there is that effect. And it is likely to resonate nationally. For Republicans, it seems, that if they are not emboldened, they can at least feel that the public does not totally reject their ideas. And it was hard to think that standing among the throngs that flocked to Madison last winter during the height of the debate over Walker's budget repair bill.

Were either of you surprised by these results?

No real surprises, as far as I'm concerned.  I think most people saw Kapanke as the most vulnerable Republican, followed by Hopper, and and that Pasche had an outside chance of beating Darling.  So, I think things played out as expected.  One sort of surprising result was how close the Olson/Clark contest was.  Olson hadn't really faced much competition before and this race proved to be pretty tight.  One thing to keep in mind here, though, is that Clark out-spent Olson by a fairly wide margin.

No surprises here either. Although this affirms the Republican position, the elections were close and the Democrats were not far from reaching their goal. What would have been striking would have been a blowout in either direction.

Do you think they'll have a recall election for the Gov?

I think the state Democrats and aligned groups will try to recall Walker.  All indications are that they will try to time it so the recall will coincide with the 2012 presidential election, the theory being that higher turnout will help them.

That makes sense to me. But it also seems that after this enormous recall effort--millions in contributions; countless volunteer hours--it is going to be hard to muster the same level of energy to fuel a new recall. Plus, the political landscape will no doubt shift, putting issues other than Walker's governing style on voters' minds.   

What are your views on the apparent failure of the Democrats to win the recall elections this past weekend? We supporters of the Ed Schultz initiative are in rather low spirits right now---and could use some encouragement, or at least reassurance.

I guess it's important to keep in mind that the task before recall advocates was pretty monumental.  It strikes me that Democrats and allied groups did about as well as could reasonably be expected.  It would have been a substantial and somewhat unexpected feat to win the Darling seat, and even more unexpected to pick off any of the others where Democrats lost.  So, I guess part of the issue in terms of "spirits" might be related to expectations.  I'm not sure how reassuring that is...

Do you think these election results show that strength still exists in the Republican party? Maybe 2012 won't be a bad year for Republicans after all, even with a weak line-up of Presidential candidates, no?

Indeed. It also, I think, reveals a conundrum that lies at the heart of  politics, particularly when you talk about legislative and congressional races. You always hear about how disgusted voters are with lawmakers, or the political climae. But they rarely muster the same distaste for their lawmaker.  In something like a state Senate race, the nuances of a politican's views and style often survive the caricatures seen in ads. So voters in races like this, I think, tend to vote for more for individuals than party. It seems like 2012 will turn on the state of the economy and who voters blame for its condition. And while President Obama has made an effort to appeal to the middle and seek compromise, he also has allowed the GOP to set the terms of the debate. He has even adopted some of their talking points, as he talks about a nation having to live within its means, ect. But he may have trouble reconciling his new-found focus on deficits with his reluctance to produce or embrace a plan that would cut the nation's long-term debt. And, it seems, that provides an opening for the Republican candidate, whoever that ends up being. 

November 2012 is fifteen months away.  I'd be careful about reading too much into yesterday's results, or anything else happening right now, as a harbinger of thing to come

It is a bit much to call this a "crushing" defeat. The Dems took two seats in the Senate! Most of the Republicans barely held on to their seats, and a lot of people who never voted for a Democrat in their lives did so yesterday. Note that these were not just Tea Party newbies --- some of these senators had been in office since the 1980s. One had never faced a Democratic opponent in his entire career! This should have served as a wake-up call to any legislator who mistakenly thought that the...See More extreme right is the new majority, and that every registered Republican will just vote for an (R) no matter how ridiculous their policies get. The district that voted overwhelmingly for Obama but then turned Republican just booted their senator at the earliest opportunity. Not a good sign for Republicans in 2012. Watch out!  - Post user erinoconnell

Again, it is all about what one could reasonably have expected.  From that perspective, Democrats should be glad they got what they got, and Republicans should be glad they didn't do any worse than expected.  Of course, the stakes of holding on to that one extra seat were huge for the Republicans, and the stakes of getting that seat were huge for the Democrats, so from that perspective it is not surprising that Democrats are very disappointed and Republicans are very pleased.

Its hard to justify that in a time of increased budget deficits over 25 million was just wasted, primarily to help unions regain power in the state government. It doesn't sound like a good use of money.

I think that depends on your point of view. For unions, this was an existential fight.  Gov. Walker went not only after their members's collective bargaining rights and money by asking for bigger pension contributions and essentially limiting future raises, but he also constrained unions' ability to collect dues. Other states have made similar moves. The unions had to push back. Public employees are now the heart of organized labor. They also are a mainstay of Democratic support. So, from their point of view, the fight--whatever its cost--was essential.   

Do the Democrats hold the two seats next Tuesday? Is some of the steam taken out of the "Recall Walker" movement now?

Yes, next week's recalls are over Democratic-held seats. So Republicans maintain control of the state Senate. Of course, they also have control of the governship and Assembly. It seems that this would sap some energy from any effort to recall Walker, but we'll see.

Republicans are probably going to focus on defeating Jim Holperin, in the 12 Senate district.  He barely won his last election and is facing off against Kim Simac, founder of Northwoods Patriots, a Tea Party Group.  I think they see this as their chance to get one of the seats back and try to add to the "deflated" mood of state Democrats, potentially influencing the Walker recall efforts.  Right now, Hoperin is spending about twice as much as Simac, though that didn't seem to help Kapanke hold on to his seat.


Gotta run. Thanks for the great questions. It is going to be interesting to watch the aftermath of the recall fight play out in the coming months.

The defeat was disappointing for those of us with passionate, liberal views on the state of things. If nothing else, though, the election effort showed good organization and lots of very hard work, and shed sunlight on some of the fundraising and ideology-setting practices of the new Republican right--e.g., ALEC and coordination among conservative think tanks, politicians, and mega-donors.

It would be interesting to see some data on the "ground game" at the precinct level to get a sense of how effective these efforts were.  Based on my own experience living in a Democratic neighbohood in the Darling district, I suspect there were probably effectinve but off-setting effects.  You couldn't swing a dead cat in my neighboorhood without hitting a Pasche canvasser in the last couple of weeks, but there were no Darling canvassers.  I strongly suspect that the exact opposit was true in the north and west suburbs.  so, while the efforts may have been effective, they were also probably off-setting.

Since you're a professor, what's the mood on campus like today?  Are your students apathetic, or since most college students tend to lean liberal, upset?  Although I guess many of the college students there can't vote there since they're probably out of state, right?

Right now, there are hardly any students on campus.  Actually, that may have had some effect in a few of the recall elections yesterday.  With the exception of the Madison campus, most studetns in the UW-system are in-state students, so they could potentially vote in these elections.  However, in those districts with college campuses, most of the students were away for summer break.  I'm not sure which districts this would include, but since there are 14 campuses inthe UW-system, I suspect this had an effect in at least a couple races.

In terms of mood, I would describe our students as more engaged in the last several months than they have been in a long time.

What is President Obama's popularity ratings in Wisconsin, and they have changed much in recent months? What are his reelection prospects in Wisconsin and how much might his being at the head of the ticket impact underticket races?

I'm tempted to open a new window and "Google" an answer for you.

Wisconsin is a very middle-of-the-road state, so I suspect Obama is doing about as well here as he is nationwide.  Although Wisconsin went pretty heavily for Obama in 2008, I would expect the race to be somewhat tighter here in 2012, primarily because I think it will be tighter nationwide.  However, as I cautioned above, it is too early to say much about how things will turn out in 2012.

Thanks for all your questions.  I'm going to hit the road now.

In This Chat
Thomas Holbrook
Thomas M. Holbrook is the department chair and the Wilder Crane Professor of Government in the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  He is the author of Do Campaigns Matter? (Sage 1996) and dozens of articles on campaigns and elections.  Professor Holbrook is currently working on a long-term study of public opinion and voting behavior in urban elections.  He blogs occasionally at
Michael Fletcher
Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt and the evolving job market. Previously, he was a White House correspondent, covering both the Obama and Bush administrations. He also has written about education and race relations. Fletcher is co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas," a critically acclaimed biography published by Doubleday in April 2007. Fletcher was born and raised in New York City where he attended public schools. He is a graduate of Boston University.
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