The recall primary and general election results have shaken the confidence of Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans — so much so that the governor was on right-wing talk radio last week decrying his critics as “almost anarchists.”
Is Walker losing it? Perhaps.
Is he right to be worried? Absolutely.
There will be nine recall elections (involving six Republican incumbents and three Democratic incumbents) this summer. If Democrats win six of them, they will take control of the state Senate and establish a check and balance on the governor.
And the numbers from the two rounds of partisan primaries — on July 12 and July 19 — did not provide the governor with much to be optimistic about.
Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen swept to re-election last week, with two-thirds of the vote in the first partisan test of the recall season that will play out this summer. And Republican primaries to choose challengers to Democratic Sens. Jim Holperin and Bob Wirch highlighted unexpected weakness on the GOP side.
In all three districts where Republicans paid tens of thousands of dollars to out-of-state petition gatherers to force recalls of Democratic senators, the votes cast for Republican candidates fell short of the number of signatures on the recall petitions.
How can that be?
In all three districts, there were complaints that fraudulent tactics were used to gather signatures and that fraudulent names appeared on the petitions that were filed by the paid GOP operatives. Famously, in the southeastern Wisconsin district of Wirch, D-Kenosha, the name of Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan’s late father was on the anti-Wirch petition. Pocan’s father, a leading Kenosha Democrat for many years, was a friend of Wirch. Had he been alive, he would never have signed the anti-Wirch petition, yet there was his name on the documents filed by the Republicans, along with many other dubious signatures.
The Republicans filed roughly 18,300 signatures (17,138 were ultimately validated) to force the recall of Wirch. Yet on July 19 only 9,350 voters cast ballots in a highly competitive GOP primary. That’s right, for all the talk about how “angry” voters were supposed to be with Wirch and the other Democratic senators, barely half of the number of supposedly “angry” petition signers bothered to go to the polls.
In Holperin’s northern Wisconsin district, where Republicans had a competitive primary, only 19,068 votes were cast. That’s almost 4,000 less than the number of signatures that the GOP nominee, Kim Simac, claimed had been gathered to recall Holperin.
In Sen. Hansen’s Green Bay area district, the Democratic incumbent was re-elected with 66 percent of the vote. Hansen got more than 20,650 votes. His Republican challenger, Dave VanderLeest, who led the recall drive that filed 18,872 signatures (15,540 validated), got around 10,600 votes. So more than 8,000 supposed signers of the recall petitions against Hansen did not bother to support the challenge to the senator.
How does that compare with Democrats running in the July 12 primaries?
Remember that those primaries saw contests between real Democrats and “fake Democrats” drafted into the competition by the Republicans.
All six July 12 Democratic primaries saw much higher turnout than the July 19 Republican primaries. And all six real Democratic candidates won with more votes than went last week to the winners of Republican primaries. In fact, the Democrats won with a lot more votes. The highest vote for a Democrat, Jennifer Shilling’s 25,338 in the La Crosse area, was 14,000 votes more than the top vote for a Republican winner (Holperin challenger Simac). The Democratic primary winner with the lowest vote (Nancy Nusbaum, who will challenge Republican incumbent Rob Cowles) still got almost 3,000 votes more than the strongest Republican (Simac).
The Democratic enthusiasm going into the recall voting on Aug. 9 (six Democratic challenges to Republican incumbents) and Aug. 16 (two Republican challenges to Democratic incumbents) appears, by any measure of the primary voting, to be significantly higher than the Republican enthusiasm.
While combined Republican primary voting in the districts of Democratic incumbents Holperin and Wirch trailed far behind the number of recall petition signatures filed, and while the Republican challenger to Democratic incumbent Hansen trailed far, far behind the recall petition total, some Democrats ran even with or even ahead of the petition numbers.
In the La Crosse area, Shilling won 3,500 more votes than the number of recall signatures that were validated by the Government Accountability Board.
In the Milwaukee area, Democrat Sandy Pasch won almost 22,000 votes — almost exactly the number of validated signatures on Democratic petitions filed to recall Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, Walker’s point person on budget issues.
Not all the Democratic nominees ran better than the petition numbers in their districts. But they all ran up dramatically higher vote totals than any of the Republican nominees.
Primaries don’t tell the whole story of general elections — especially in so volatile a year as this. But they provide signals that savvy pols recognize. That’s why Walker is ranting and raving about “anarchists.” He knows his legislative advantage is facing a serious threat.
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