Fueled by union outrage over modest changes in collective bargaining put into play by Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, the Democrat Party and union leaders hand-picked six potentially vulnerable Republican state senators for recall elections. Hanging in the balance was control of the Wisconsin Senate and the future of the entire Scott Walker revolution, which has transformed a $3.6 billion biennial deficit into a $300 million surplus and has pushed most school districts from the red into the black, all while keeping property tax increases to a historical low of 2%.
When the dust settled, the Republicans had won four of the six recall elections and exchanged their 19 to 14 majority in the Senate for a 17 to 16 majority. Republicans Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper lost their elections. Winning easily were Republicans Sen. Robert Cowles, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, and Sen. Luther Olsen. At the epicenter of this recall movement was state Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). She was facing a recall challenge from Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay). It was billed as the election which would tip the scales one way or another.
In 2008, Darling had won her district by a mere 1,007 out of more than 99,000 votes cast. Her district went narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008. As a result, the Democrats spent perhaps more on this single race than in any legislative race in the history of the state of Wisconsin. It was perhaps one of the most expensive state legislative races in the history of the country, with more than $7.9 million spent by both candidates — more than twice the previous record of $3 million. There was more spent on the Alberta Darling/Sandy Pasch race than was spent on the election of Governor Scott Walker last year.
Union activists and employees poured into Wisconsin from out of state. Special interest groups were created and hired large staffs. Unprecedented levels of political advertising were spent by Democrats in the Milwaukee area on the Darling race alone. Republicans were outspent 2 to 1.
After the results were announced, Scott Walker said:
Last November the people of Wisconsin sent a message that they want us to focus on fiscal responsibility and jobs. In our first month in office we balanced a $3.6 billion deficit and our state created 39,000 new jobs.
Vanquished Democrats and union operatives tried to remain upbeat after the losses, but more bad news may be on the way. On Tuesday, August 16, two Democrat senators — Jim Holperin and Robert Wirch — face recall elections themselves. If Republicans win those races, the Senate will be right back where it was before August 9.