The recall petition drive against state Sen. Alberta Darling has generated lots of heat, but what it will take to defeat her - or for her to withstand the challenge from state Rep. Sandy Pasch - is unclear.
While recall election is not yet certain, Darling has made several public statements that she expects that it will occur. She has been working hard to protect her seat from challenger Pasch, a Democrat who now holds the 22nd Assembly District seat.
An election had tentatively set for mid-July, that have been filed by Darling and other senators up for recall.
Darling, a Republican who has held the Senate seat for 19 years, is better known in the district. Her role as co-chairwoman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee puts her in the spotlight for controversial measures almost daily, a double-edged sword in these polarized times. She also has little time to campaign at a time when the other side is accusing her of avoiding her constituents.
Pasch has the support of a virtual army of supporters and a well-organized recall team. Many of those workers are union members and that has led to charges that she is in the pocket of the unions. Since she has declared her candidacy, Pasch has frequently been called upon to serve as a counterpoint to Darling.
Pasch: Darling puts politics first
In an interview, Pasch said winning the election is a matter of getting her message out.
"Senator Darling has put politics before people," Pasch said. "Her votes have hurt education and the delivery of services in her district. People would like the political leaders in our state to work together and they are not."
Pasch said Darling and the Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee are backtracking and restoring some funds to education and senior health care issues. She questions whether Darling would have taken those steps without the threat of recall.
"This is about the grassroots," Pasch said. "People are angry and they want to take their state back."
Neither Darling nor her campaign staff responded to requests for an interview for this story.
Turnout will be a key factor
What it will take to win is up for debate, say less partisan observers.
Money is important, but an energized base of supporters is probably as important. Funding for public schools, the expansion of the voucher program, taxes, state spending and issues that affect senior citizens will all come into play.
“Unlike November 2008, the turnout is going to be somewhat lower,” said Mordecai Lee, a former state legislator who now a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The campaign that wins is the one that has the best chauffeur service.”
The senate district is divided. Sheldon Wasserman, who lost to Darling by about 1,000 votes in 2008, noted that he had taken most of the portion in Milwaukee County but lost heavily in portions in Waukesha County.
“A lot will depend on areas like Menomonee Falls,” said Lee. “A lot of voters who live there are just a generation away from the blue-collar working class. They are new Republicans and it’s possible that they may see the collective bargaining issue as a tipping point.”
Todd Berry, president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance since 1994, said taxes and jobs are the key political issues during an economic downturn. He agreed with Lee that the election will be won by the party that is best able to motivate its base.
"There are an awful lot of people from both parties who don’t like recall elections,” Berry said. “They think recall should be reserved for gross malfeasance, not voting on an issue based on conviction.”
Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School boards, said deep cuts in state aid to schools will not play as much of a role the measure that prevents school districts from increasing taxes.
“In the past, educational funding was the last place policy makers looked to balance the state budget,” Rossmiller said. “But Governor (Jim) Doyle decreased funding for education with his 2009-10 budget. That came on top of 18 years of revenue limits.”
If the election is held during the summer, a small army of teachers on summer break could play a big role in getting out the vote, Rossmiller said.
The need to balance the budget has created another form of polarization.
“I think we are seeing generational polarization,” said Rossmiller. “We have an aging population, and they are vocal and have legitimate concerns. Joint Finance reversed itself and maintained SeniorCare.”
Seniors could be a factor
Helen Marx Dicks, the state issues advocacy director for the Wisconsin AARP, said senior citizens “are the little fleas in the corner.” The big dog in the corner is organized labor and the collective bargaining issue, she said.
“Seniors are politically aware at the moment because of all of the talk about Medicare and Social Security,” Dicks said. “But they are the ‘we generation,’ not the ‘me generation.’ They are pro-public education because they have kids or grandchildren in the schools as students or teachers. They also have a respect for honesty and transparency and they are concerned about the way all this was done in Madison.”
AARP membership is spread fairly evenly between the Democrats, Republicans and independents, she said, and while lower taxes is a key issue, members are concerned about cuts to education and the union issues.
“I think seniors are going to vote and are going to vote pretty heavily,” Dicks said. “I’m just not sure what issue will get them to the polls.”
The AARP, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance are non-partisan groups. None endorses or contributes to political campaigns or candidates. Each has lobbied on legislators on issues.
On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Board is expected to hear arguments from Darling's lawyers regarding the validity of the petitions. The GAB staff is also expected to make a recommendation on whether to accept the petitions before the board makes its decision.